Nations around the world need to embrace multilateral governance to protect the world's oceans, which play a critical role in global climate, provide an avenue for commerce, and sustain life on earth.

"How inappropriate to call this planet earth when it is quite clearly ocean."

-Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Exploration and Empire

Henry the Navigator appears in this hand-colored woodcut reproduction of a contemporary portrait. (North Wind Picture Archives/AP Images)

Henry the Navigator and Portuguese naval expansion

Under the leadership of Prince Henry the Navigator, Portugal ushered in the European age of exploration. Although Henry participated in only one overseas voyage--the crusade against Ceuta in Morocco--he oversaw voyages to the Azores and North Africa. At the time, Portugal’s aims in maritime travel were threefold: to explore unknown territory and peoples; to promote trade overseas; and to spread Christianity. In encouraging settlement as well as exploration of foreign lands, Prince Henry laid the foundation for the Portuguese empire. And, in 1454, to reward Portugal’s successes in exploration and battles against nonbelievers, Pope Nicholas V granted control of Africa to the royal house of Portugal. This papal bull paved the way for subsequent Portuguese claims to a monopoly on trade, discovery, and conquest in Africa.

A replica of Magellan’s Nao Victoria passes through the Panama Canal on December 18, 2004. (Reuters/Alberto Lowe AL)

Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigates the world

In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan led five ships and a Spanish crew of 237 men on a voyage around the world. Magellan’s task was to show that Spanish ships could reach the Spice Islands by sailing west and avoiding the Portuguese-controlled Cape of Good Hope. In their voyage, Magellan’s crew traveled down the northwest coast of Africa to South America, passed between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through (what became known as) the Strait of Magellan, then to the Philippines, and finally along the west coast of Africa back to Spain. Only eighteen men from his crew returned alive—Magellan was not among them. Magellan’s crew contributed to Europeans’ geographic understanding, filling in large blanks on the world map and paving the way for further maritime exploration in the future.

A woodcut depicts the seizure of Spanish treasure ships by the English fleet of Sir Francis Drake. (North Wind Picture Archives/AP Images)

England asserts the freedom of the seas

Throughout the 1580s, Sir Francis Drake pioneered English expansion of trade into the Caribbean, a region previously controlled by Spain. When the Spanish ambassador to England complained to Queen Elizabeth I of Drake’s presence in the area, the queen responded by pointing out that Spain had violated the Law of Nations in attempting to prohibit English commerce. "The use of the sea and air is common to all," she famously said. "Neither can a title to the ocean belong to any people or private persons, forasmuch as neither nature nor public use and custom permit any possession thereof." Though seemingly progressive, her motivation stemmed from a British desire to undermine Spain’s dominance of maritime commerce.

A portrait of Dutch jurist and scholar Hugo Grotius. (Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Getty Images)

Hugo Grotius publishes Mare Liberum

Hugo Grotius, a Dutch legal scholar and politician, published Mare Liberum (The Free Sea) in 1609. Commissioned by the Dutch East India Company, Mare Liberum became a chapter in Grotius’s longer and posthumously published De Jure Praedae (On the Law of Prize and Booty). The book was influential both as a work of philosophy and political propaganda. Good actions, Grotius argued, are those that conform to rational and social qualities of human nature. From this axiomatic principle, he reasoned that, because ocean waters were international territory and critical to exchange among nations and peoples, no nation had the right to restrict another nation’s access to the sea for trade and exploration. Mare Liberum is widely considered the intellectual basis for the international law that serves as the foundation for oceans governance.

A reproduction of Edward Lloyd’s coffee house of 1688 in Tower Street, London, erected for the Festival of Britain Exhibition in 1951. (BIPS/Getty Images)

Lloyd's coffee house founded

Edward Lloyd’s coffee house opened in 1688, marking the beginning of what would become the leading insurance firm, Lloyd’s of London. Lloyd’s coffee house became a gathering place for the shipping community. As a service to his clientele, Lloyd began to publish Lloyd’s News, a newsletter that provided underwriters with a rating system for ships, classifying them by type and evaluating their quality. From these humble beginnings grew the hub of the maritime insurance industry. In 1739, more than 90 percent of British maritime insurance was transacted at Lloyd’s. Today, Lloyd’s has expanded its scope beyond shipping, but remains a dominant presence in the marine insurance industry.

A replica of HM Bark Endeavour, the ship in which Captain James Cook explored the Antipodes in 1768. (Reuters/STR New)

Captain Cook's voyages

British explorer Captain James Cook led three voyages, each of which contributed to Europe’s understanding of world geography. Until his death, Captain Cook documented his travels in a journal, which has survived. Cook’s expeditions not only mapped new territory but also provided a major advance in seafaring: the sea clock. The success of this device allowed navigators to ascertain longitude much more accurately than previously possible. Cook’s voyages also contributed to scientific knowledge, because the crew included a botanist and an astronomer who documented their findings along the way. Finally, artists were also members of Cook’s voyages, creating a visual record—still on display in museums—of the expeditions and the exotic scenery.

A woodcut of the burning of a U.S. ship, held by Barbary pirates in Tripoli harbor in 1804. (North Wind Picture Archives/AP Images)

The Barbary wars

In the eighteenth century, the Barbary states—Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli—controlled the Mediterranean through piracy and extortion of ships passing through their waters. Before 1776, American vessels were protected from this piracy under the aegis of British tribute and the Royal Navy. After independence, however, American ships became vulnerable.

The first Barbary war began in 1801 when the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States after an American envoy declined to pay adequate tribute. After two uneventful years, Tripolitans captured the heavy frigate Philadelphia. In a huge victory for the nascent U.S. Navy, a heroic commando operation freed the vessel and burned it to prevent its use by Tripoli. Ultimately, the U.S. Marine Corps assaulted Tripoli, leading to American victory and a treaty in 1805.

In 1812, the dey of Algiers rejected U.S. tribute payments and declared war on the United States. The war with Algiers was not truly fought until 1815, when the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812. At that point, the U.S. Navy sent a squadron commanded by a hero of the first Barbary war, who quickly compelled the dey of Algiers to accept a treaty with terms favorable to the United States.

The Barbary wars, in addition to demonstrating growing naval prowess, affirmed U.S. dedication to freedom of commerce and navigation. The wars were a milestone in America’s early fights against piracy.

Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London, honors Admiral Lord Nelson’s naval victory. (Reuters/Kieran Doherty)

Battle of Trafalgar

On October 21, 1805, the British Navy defeated the combined forces of France and Spain in a single-day engagement near Cape Trafalgar off the southwest coast of Spain. The British fleet, commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson, used the unconventional tactic of raking, which consisted of attacking the bow and stern of an enemy vessel, to strike a devastating blow to Napoleon’s navy, commanded by Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve. When the combined forces surrendered, Villeneuve’s fleet had lost twenty ships, Villeneuve was captured, and 14,000 men were either dead or taken as prisoners of war. On the British side, 1,500 men were killed or wounded, and Admiral Nelson died from battle wounds, but no British ships were lost.

In addition to deterring Napoleon from invading Great Britain, the Battle of Trafalgar began the era of nineteenth-century British naval dominance, and marked the start of the Pax Britannica—a century of peace in Europe as a result of the British Empire’s dominance in naval power.

Almost two hundred years after the War of 1812, the USS Constitution sails again on July 20, 1997. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

War of 1812

War broke out between America and Britain in 1812. During the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain had established a naval blockade of Europe. In enforcing the blockade, the British Navy began seizing and forcing the sale of American merchant ships and their cargoes. Even more inflammatory, it established the practice of impressing American men captured from U.S. vessels, claiming to be looking for deserters employed on American ships. The public outrage engendered by these transgressions, in addition to the conviction that the British were aiding Native American attacks against frontier settlements, moved Congress to declare war on England in June 1812. The timing was inopportune for England, which was already fighting Napoleon in Europe.

Although each side won battles, neither nation emerged as a decisive victor. Consequently, the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war in 1815, returned the situation in North America to the antebellum status quo. Nevertheless, the War of 1812 did have enduring consequences. First, it inspired American nationalism, with many referring to it as the "second war for American independence." Second, it de facto established neutral rights for the United States, ensuring U.S. freedom of navigation and ending the legacy of the British Atlantic mercantile system. Finally, it announced the United States as a growing naval power—not only did the U.S. fleet grow substantially because of the war, but the Americans’ ability to defeat the dominant British Navy in a few engagements counted as a large accomplishment.

British and American ships engaged in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813 in this hand-colored woodcut. (North Wind Picture Archives/AP Images)

Rush-Bagot Pact

An agreement between the United States and Great Britain, the Rush-Bagot Pact effectively demilitarized the Great Lakes, with the exception of small patrol boats. During the War of 1812, both British and American forces had built up fleets on the lakes, especially Erie and Ontario, and the navies clashed in battle on these waters. After the war, both the United States and Great Britain continued to build naval vessels so as to maintain parity amidst the rivalry. The Rush-Bagot Pact arose from both a thawing of British-American relations and the desire of each party to cut back on military expenditures by downsizing their Great Lakes fleet. The pact is thus the first official resolution of a point of tension arising from the War of 1812 not addressed in the Treaty of Ghent. Moreover, the pact allowed for free trade between the United States and Canada across the Great Lakes.

Woodcut of boats anchored at the East River docks in New York City in the 1880s. (North Wind Picture Archives/AP Images)

Regular packet ship service and the Black Ball Line

In January 1818, the first Black Ball Line packet service sailed between New York and Liverpool. Previously, shipping had operated on an unpredictable schedule, but the Black Ball Line pioneered the practice of scheduled ship departures. Other lines sprung up to compete with Black Ball, and on average, a ship arrived or departed for Europe from New York every thirty hours. With more reliable shipping and the opening of the Erie Canal, industrial trade on the Atlantic flourished. Over time, New York became the center of gravity for international shipping and was the world’s largest container port from the mid-1800s to 1985.

Storekeepers pose in Zanzibar in 1895. (Photo by LL/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

Zanzibar made capital of Omani empire

A cosmopolitan capital in East Africa, Zanzibar dedicated a great deal of money to modernizing its technology, architecture, and infrastructure. In 1832, Sultan Said ibn Sultan, ruler of Oman, made Zanzibar the capital of the Omani maritime empire. The city became a trade center, particularly for the lucrative slave, ivory, and spices trades—all of which were exported internationally. The sultan also stationed the Omani maritime fleet in Zanzibar, from which the first Arab ship to visit the United States sailed in 1840.

A U.S. Navy squadron commanded by Matthew Perry sails for Japan in 1852 in this woodcut. (North Wind Picture Archives/AP Images)

Commodore Matthew Perry opens Japan

Beginning in the seventeenth century, the Japanese shogunate prohibited foreign trade, with the exception of a few Dutch and Chinese traders at Nagasaki. As the United States sought new markets for American goods, President Millard Fillmore dispatched Commodore Matthew Perry to "open" Japan to trade. The commodore traveled to Japan in 1854 with four steamships, which the Japanese called "black ships." These proved so intimidating to the Japanese that they were cowed into accepting the Treaty of Kanagawa in March 1854. The treaty opened the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to American ships, provided for assistance to shipwrecked U.S. vessels, and allowed American ships to buy maritime provisions in Japanese ports.

This treaty marked the end of Japan’s isolation from the rest of the world and the beginning of the U.S.-Japanese relationship. Shortly after the treaty was signed, envoys arrived from the European powers to conduct similar shows of force to compel Japanese acceptance of additional treaties.

The presence of so many foreigners and the societal disruptions that stemmed from international trade catalyzed a wave of nationalism and domestic unrest. Many Japanese were frustrated in the shogun’s inability to manage the effects of the nation’s opening to trade, and this discontent ultimately swelled into the Meiji Revolution of 1868—the beginning of Japanese modernization.

U.S. President James Buchanan hands an Associated Press agent a message for Britain’s Queen Victoria in this illustration. (AP Photo)

First transatlantic submarine cable

Spearheaded by New York paper magnate Peter Field and subsidized by Congress, the first successful submarine cable was laid between New York, Newfoundland, and Great Britain in 1857. On August 17, 1858, Queen Victoria sent the first transatlantic telegraph from London to President James Buchanan in Washington; transmission took sixteen hours. This was a landmark shift in the pace of international communication from the twelve days by steamship and land telegraph for a transatlantic message.

An illustrated rendering of the first battle fought between ironclad ships during the Civil War at the Battle of Hampton Roads. (AP Photo)

Battle of Hampton Roads

The Battle of Hampton Roads was a major Civil War naval battle, fought off the coast of Virginia on March 8 and 9, 1862, in which the Confederate military attempted to break the North’s naval blockade of the South. On the first day of engagement, the Confederate iron-clad warship, the CSS Virginia (the former USS Merrimac), inflicted a bloody defeat on two Union vessels—the USS Congress and USS Cumberland—both of which were made of oak and not fortified with iron. The decisiveness of the victory proved the superiority of ironclad ships for war, ushering in a new era in naval technology. On the second day, the Virginia battled the Union’s ironclad vessel, the USS Monitor. This clash between two steam-powered ironclads was the first naval battle of the modern era in which both ships benefited from the revolutionary new iron ship design.

Although the battle itself was a tactical draw, many believe it was a strategic win for the North. By neutralizing the Virginia, the Monitor ensured the Union’s ability to maintain its naval blockade. Beyond putting great pressure on the Southern economy, the Northern blockade also constituted the first truly global disruption of international trade. The interruption of Southern exports was particularly problematic for Great Britain because British textile mills relied on the United States for raw cotton.

The U.S. Naval Observatory, pictured here in 1940. (Dmitri Kessel//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images).

Maury publishes The Physical Geography of the Seas

Matthew Fontaine Maury’s The Physical Geography of the Seas was the first major work of oceanography available to a popular audience. A famous nineteenth-century mariner, Maury served as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory and oversaw meteorological research. In his seminal text, Maury explored many of the mysteries of the ocean, such as the Gulf Stream, ocean currents, coral reefs, and hurricanes. His research was based on observations made at sea, and he drew heavily on documentation of winds and currents in merchant marine and naval ships’ logs. His pioneering work in oceanography had international impact: he inspired other seafaring nations to send their ships’ logs to the American Naval Observatory for analysis, and he proposed the first international conference on meteorology, which was held in Brussels in 1853.

Royalty from around the world attend the opening ceremony of the Suez Canal on November 17, 1869. (AP-Photo)

Suez Canal

Located in Egypt, the Suez Canal connected the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, which allowed transport from Europe to Asia without circumventing Africa. When the canal opened in November 1869, fewer than 500 vessels crossed in its first year of service. After expansion in 1876, the canal became one of the most heavily trafficked shipping lanes in the world.

An illustration of seawater samples aboard the HMS Challenger. (Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Challenger expedition

The HMS Challenger was a British Royal Navy vessel commissioned to study the world’s oceans. The ship was specially outfitted for science, and had chemistry, biology, and physics laboratories built in the place of guns. The scientific team, led by Professor Wyville Thomson of the University of Edinburgh, set up 362 stations for observation and study; at each station, a similar battery of oceanic tests and samples were taken. The ship departed from Great Britain in December 1872 and returned in May 1876, having traversed 68,890 nautical miles and collected samples of the North and South Pacific and the Atlantic. The Report of the Scientific Results of the Exploring Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger was a founding text of oceanography and detailed currents, temperatures, and depths of the ocean, the topography, geology, and biology of the sea floor, and animal life in the oceans. The oceanographer and marine biologist John Murray called the Challenger’s findings "the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries."

Modern Sea Power

Theodore Roosevelt in 1897 as assistant secretary of the Navy. (AP Photo/ho)

U.S. gunboat diplomacy

From the early nineteenth century until the Great Depression, sea power became an important tool of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, between 1800 and 1934, U.S. Marines staged no fewer than 180 landings on foreign shores to further American interests. Nations invaded during this period spanned the globe—from Greece (1827) to Samoa (1841, 1885, 1888, 1889, and 1899) to Yugoslavia (1919). Central America and the Caribbean were repeated subjects of U.S. naval power as President Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine moved American forces to police the Caribbean rather than lose the islands to European influence.

The SS Proteus makes its way through the Arctic ice in 1881. (National Archives/NOAA/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

First International Polar Year

The first International Polar Year, which actually lasted from 1881 to 1884, constituted the first series of cooperative international expeditions to the polar regions. Eleven nations participated, together establishing twelve research stations in the Arctic and at least thirteen auxiliary stations. Although no significant discoveries were made, the extensive observations documented have served as an important reference for scientists studying the impact of climate change on the Arctic.

Prince Louis Alexander Battenberg in 1890, who held several senior British Naval commands. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Influence of sea power on history

Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan published The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 . A second volume, The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793-1812, followed in 1892. In his books, Mahan—president of the Naval War College and a lecturer in naval history—argued that the increased strength of the British navy, coupled with the relative decline of other European maritime powers, created the conditions for England’s military, political, and economic hegemony. Mahan’s theory found a receptive audience among American political and military elite, who believed that increased naval strength would be necessary in America’s quest to expand to markets overseas. Mahan’s ideas were put into practice after the Spanish-American War in 1898, when the United States won control of many of the naval bases that Mahan had suggested, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Mahan’s arguments changed the way European nations thought about sea power as well; this paradigm shift eventually fueled a competitive naval race between European powers.

A group of immigrants arrives at Ellis Island in New York in this undated photograph. (AP Photo)

Ellis Island established

Ellis Island opened its doors as a federal immigration center on New York Harbor on January 1, 1892. Its debut coincided with a massive wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and from other nations as peoples fled war, poverty, famine, and religious persecution. At the zenith of Ellis Island’s activity, from 1900 to 1914, between five thousand and ten thousand immigrants passed through immigration every day. Of course, every one of the approximately 21 million who came to the United States during this era arrived by boat. The steamship had become the vehicle for global transportation—not only of people, but also commercial goods.

The USS Maine the day after an explosion on the battleship in Havana Harbor killed 266 crew members. (AP Photo/Key West Art/Historical Society,File)

Spanish-American War

In April 1898, after years of tension surrounding Spain’s reaction to the Cuban War for Independence (1895), President McKinley asked Congress to declare war on Spain. By mid-April, the North Atlantic Squadron had blockaded Cuba. Concurrently, the United States was also fighting Spain in the Philippines, where nationalists had revolted against Spanish rule in 1896. On May 1, 1899, American forces won a significant victory when Commodore Dewey and his Asiatic Squadron defeated the Spanish in Manila Bay, Philippines. Finally, in August 1899, Spain and the United States agreed to the Treaty of Paris.

According to the terms of the Treaty of Paris, the United States gained control of Spain’s colonies: Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Even after the treaty, Filipino nationalists continued to fight against American rule in a struggle that lasted until 1902. Cuba received its independence, but it quickly became clear that strings were attached. In 1902, the United States compelled Cuba to agree to the Platt Amendment, which affirmed America’s right to intervene in Cuba, restricted Cuban foreign policy, and gave the United States control of the naval base at Guantanamo Bay. The cessions made by Spain to the United States after the Spanish-American War transformed the United States into an imperial power despite the ongoing domestic debate over whether controlling colonies was a violation of American principles.

A float at the Mainz carnival representing John Bull trying to swallow the German Navy in February 1912. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Anglo-German naval arms race

In 1898, Germany passed a law mandating that the country build a fleet big enough to defeat the British Royal Navy. The law was based on the Reichsflotte theory—advocated by German Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz and inspired by the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan—which posited that the German navy (Reichsflotte) could challenge the Pax Britannica given naval superiority. Great Britain responded to the law by increasing the pace of its naval development, culminating in the 1906 completion of the Dreadnought, a revolutionary new battleship. Germany reacted by accelerating construction of its own Dreadnought-type warship in an effort to surpass the British. Between 1908 and 1912, the naval arms race reached its zenith, but in 1912, Germany began diverting funds from its navy to its army. Nevertheless, the high tension in Anglo-German relations was a contributing factor to the outbreak of World War I.

In the Russo-Japanese War, Admiral Yashiro earned a reputation as a cool-headed and intelligent battle commander. (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

Battle of Tsushima

The Battle of Tsushima was a naval engagement that ended the Russo-Japanese War. After a two-day battle, the Japanese destroyed two-thirds of the Russian fleet—only ten of Russia’s forty-five warships escaped—and the Russians realized that resistance to Japan’s imperial ambitions in East Asia was futile. Moreover, Japan’s decisive victory ushered in the era of Japanese militarism and announced the nation as the first modern non-Western great power. In Russia, the devastating defeat set in motion the series of events that led to the October Revolution.

The Great White Fleet, departing from Virginia in 1907 on the first global naval voyage in U.S. history. (AP Photo/U.S. Navy)

Roosevelt's Great White Fleet

Dispatched by President Theodore Roosevelt, the Great White Fleet consisted of sixteen new U.S. battleships, painted white with gold lettering. The Atlantic Fleet departed Hampton Roads, Virginia, in December 1907 in a global tour de force of American sea power and returned in February 1909. The travels of the Great White Fleet amounted to a coming-out party for American sea power, announcing its eagerness to be taken seriously as a global power.

The dramatic telegraph message sent out by the doomed Titanic--"We have struck an iceberg"--shown here in February 1998. (Reuters/Jeff Christensen)

Sinking of the Titanic

On April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank into the North Atlantic four days into its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. Of the 2,225 passengers on board, more than 1,500 died, primarily because the vessel did not have enough lifeboats. In reaction to the Titanic tragedy, the first International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convened in London in 1913. New safety regulations emerged: ship companies were required to announce their intended travel routes and an international ice patrol was established. Ice patrol activities in the United States were assigned to the Revenue Cutter Service, which eventually became the U.S. Coast Guard. SOLAS was important in its efforts to ensure that the sea was safe and secure, and that search and rescue missions were effectively carried out; the convention also opened the door to international efforts toward shipping regulation.

People gather along the pier to see the first boat pass through the Panama Canal in this undated photo. (AP Photo)

Opening of the Panama Canal

On August 15, 1914, the Panama Canal opened across the Isthmus of Panama. Connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Panama Canal was a milestone for the shipping industry because it allowed vessels to cut across Central America rather than sail around Cape Horn.

Battle cruisers during the battle of Jutland on March 24, 1916. (AP Photo)

World War I

Many of the most important events of World War I occurred on the sea, or because of maritime-related concerns. First was the sinking of the Lusitania. In February 1915, Germany declared a war zone around the British Isles in response to Great Britain’s blockade of Germany. Pursuant to the German declaration, on May 7, a German submarine sank the British ship Lusitania. Of the 1,959 passengers on board, 1,128 died, provoking outrage among the British public. With the death of 128 American crew members, the sinking of the Lusitania contributed to an already negative American public perception of Germany, though it did not goad President Wilson into declaring war. Second was the Battle of Jutland—widely considered the greatest naval battle of World War I. Although neither side won a decisive victory, the battle was significant for each side: the Germans destroyed more British ships, but the British maintained control of the North Sea.

Third, in 1917, when the United States decided to enter World War I, maritime concerns were paramount in the national debate. The Germans had violated their promise to end unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and had resumed attacks on passenger and merchant ships. Compounded by news of the Zimmerman Telegram, Germany’s violation of freedom of the sea, and resulting disruption of global trade, moved the U.S. Congress to declare war on Austria-Hungary. Fourth, and finally, Wilson’s Fourteen Points introduced at the end of World War I, affirmed the importance of freedom of the seas as a pillar of global governance. Wilson’s second point mandated "absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas, outside territorial waters, alike in peace and in war, except as the seas may be closed in whole or in part by international action for the enforcement of international covenants."

British ambassador Sir Auckland Campbell Geddes, Sir Maurice Hankey, Arthur Balfour, and Arthur Lee in Washington, DC, in November 1921. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Washington Naval Conference

In the wake of World War I, U.S. secretary of state Charles Evans Hughes called the world’s largest naval powers together in Washington, DC. In the three treaties—the Four-Power, the Five-Power, and the Nine-Power—emerging from that conference, the nine nations established a naval disarmament system by which each country’s navy was restricted according to ratios of warship tonnage relative to that of the others. The Nine-Power Treaty also internationalized the Open Door Policy in China, attempting to check Japanese expansion in East Asia. Although the Washington Naval Conference failed to ensure peace, it was the first serious multilateral attempt at arms limitation.

The U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, with eight warplanes on deck, during a show of naval strength off the coast of Baltimore. (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

First aircraft carrier, USS Langley

Commissioned in March 1922, the USS Langley was converted from a collier to the first U.S. aircraft carrier. Active in the Atlantic and Caribbean before being transferred to the Pacific in 1924, she mostly operated until 1942, when she was destroyed by Japanese forces. The ability to carry and launch aircraft on the high seas ushered in the modern age of naval aviation.

U.S. ships burn during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. (AP Photo/File)

World War II

The sheer magnitude and dire consequence of naval warfare increased dramatically during World War II. The first truly global war witnessed naval battles fought on two fronts: the Atlantic, characterized by German U-boats attacking convoys of Allied merchant vessels, and the Pacific, which pitted the two greatest naval powers—Japan and America—against one other.

The Atlantic battles saw the German Kriegsmarine combating the Allied forces for six years, the longest continuous military campaign of World War II. To the surprise of the Germans, and the dismay of the Allies, the tactical advantage of German submarines proved extremely effective against Allied merchant ships crossing the open sea to deliver valuable cargo to troops and civilians. The tables eventually turned in 1943, when air strikes and advanced intelligence led to the eventual demise of German naval supremacy. The cost was high, however: by the end of the Atlantic battles roughly 80,000 Allied and 30,000 German sailors and airmen had died.

On the Pacific front, the battles also resulted in unparalleled destruction. By the end of the war, the conflict in the Pacific had become the largest naval battle in history, covering an unforeseen expanse from the Arctic to the South Pacific. The initial attack, the Japanese targeting of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was one of the defining battles: an unexpected early morning airstrike launched by the Japanese as a warning to Americans who had been contesting the Japanese empire’s expansion in Asia. The attack destroyed five of the eight battleships at Pearl Harbor and took more than 2,400 American lives.

Soon after Pearl Harbor, in the spring of 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea was waged in the waters southwest of the Solomon Islands. The battle became renowned for the hostile weather conditions that prevented opposing factions from ever setting eyes on each other’s vessels. The battle was thus fought entirely by air, giving rise to the tactical importance of aircraft carriers as a critical weapon in warfare. A month later, the Battle of Midway signaled the turning point for Allied Forces. Japan, still recovering from some losses at Coral Sea, lost four additional aircraft carriers, which prevented it from launching further offensive attacks. The loss paved the way for Japan’s surrender on September 2, 1945.

Building a Global Framework

U.S. President Harry S. Truman at the White House in August 1945. (Getty Images)

Truman Proclamation

Proclamation 2667, better known as the Truman Proclamation, established an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extending to the continental shelf of the United States. After the discovery of offshore oil and gas, President Truman wanted to ensure that these natural resources could be exploited by the United States alone. The proclamation read, "the Government of the United States regards the natural resources of the subsoil and sea bed of the continental shelf beneath the high seas but contiguous to the coasts of the United States as appertaining to the United States, subject to its jurisdiction and control." Other countries reacted by establishing their own exclusive economic zones, and EEZs were ultimately codified in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The carcass of a Fin whale is tied to a whaling ship as it anchors near a processing plant in Hvalfjordur, Iceland, in June 2009. (Ingolfur Juliusson/Reuters)

International Whaling Commission

Established to implement the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which was signed in 1946, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) is an intergovernmental body that regulates whale hunting by setting number and size limits, gear specifications, and temporary or permanent bans on particular species. A wholesale ban on all commercial whaling was enacted in 1986, though some countries have refused to comply.

Offshore drilling occurs in the Gulf of Mexico, off the shore of Louisiana, in May 1956. (Joseph Scherschel/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico

Offshore drilling dates back to the late 1860s when operators erected drilling and production platforms in shallow waters and lakes. Its most promising development took place almost one hundred years later when energy company Kerr-McGee Oil Industries built the world’s first commercial offshore oil well ten miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. Marking the beginning of the modern offshore drilling industry, the construction of the first Kerr-McGee drilling platform was quickly followed with forty-four additional exploratory wells over eleven vast oil fields.

A dock worker walks in front of a container ship at the port of Singapore in May 2009. (Reuters/Vivek Prakash)

International Maritime Organization

Founded at an UN-sponsored conference in Geneva in the wake of World War II, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) was intended to develop international standards for shipping that would supersede national regulations. However, the convention establishing the IMO did not enter into force until 1958.

General Douglas MacArthur and his staff view air strikes from the flag bridge of the USS Mt. McKinley in Korean waters off Inchon on September 16, 1950. (AP Photo)

Inchon Landing

In arguably the most daring naval landing in history, General Douglas MacArthur planned and led the landing at Inchon on September 15-17, 1950, a battle that shifted the course of the Korean War. MacArthur’s plan called on the First Marine Division, the Seventh Infantry Division, two South Korean marine battalions, an elite South Korean infantry regiment, and several additional U.S. Army and Marine Corps troops in a support function. It allowed MacArthur’s troops to continue on to take Seoul and forced the North Korean army to retreat up the Korean peninsula.

Marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson in March 1963. (AP Photo)

The Sea Around Us

Before her well-known book Silent Spring was released in 1962, marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote The Sea Around Us, a natural history of the ocean. Its publication in 1951 marked the beginning of ecological sensitivity among the informed public, launched a broader appreciation of the marine environment, and provided a foundational text for the environmental movement.

A boat sails past the Lesser Kinmen, which was the site of extensive shelling during the first and second Taiwan Straits crises. (Reuters/Nicky Loh)

First Taiwan Strait Crisis

In December 1949, at the end of the Chinese civil war, nationalists loyal to Chang Kai Shek retreated to islands in the Taiwan Strait. In 1954, hostilities broke out between China and Taiwan when the Chinese military conducted artillery attacks on the nationalist-held islands of Quemoy and Matsu. Although U.S. policymakers considered a full-scale intervention to prevent the Chinese from invading, President Eisenhower instead decided to sign a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. Accordingly, in late January 1955, Congress passed the Formosa Resolution. The force of American deterrence ended the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, though the peace between China and Taiwan remains uneasy. Subsequent crises across the Taiwan Strait broke out again in 1958 and 1995-1996.

Launched in 1958, this German navy ship continues to sail fifty years later. (Reuters/Christian Charisius)

UNCLOS I Conference

From April 23 through July 4, 1956, the United Nations convened its first conference on the law of the sea in Geneva. Four treaties, concluded in 1958, came in the wake of the conference creating the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS I): (1) the Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone; (2) the Convention on the Continental Shelf; (3) the Convention on the High Seas; and (4) the Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas.

Containers at a terminal in Hong Kong in March 2007. (Reuters/Paul Yeung)

Malcom McLean invents the shipping container

A North Carolinian trucker, Malcom McLean (1913-2001) marveled at the inefficiency of the process of loading and unloading vessels. To remedy the problem, he developed a shipping container that could be directly transferred from ships to trucks and railroads. He then invested in a prototype container ship, the Ideal-X, which, in April 1956, traveled from Newark to Houston. It was, however, only when the New York Port Authority decided to build a new container port in Elizabeth, New Jersey, that the shipping container really caught on. After that, container shipping was clearly the way of the future.

In 1966, the first container ship sailed internationally, carrying the equivalent of 200 forty-foot containers; today, container ships carry thirty times that much. The rise of the shipping container contributed to the globalization of trade because greater efficiency significantly decreased transport costs of goods across international waters.

Penguins walk in front of the French Antarctic supply ship Astrolabe in February 2008. (Ho New/Reuters)

International Geophysical Year

Modeled on the International Polar Year, the International Geophysical Year entailed the participation of sixty-seven nations in coordinated geophysical observation. Many of the event’s important discoveries came from the Antarctic, where scientists greatly improved understanding of glaciers and substantially revised earlier estimates of the earth’s ice content. The International Geophysical Year was also the impetus for scientific exploration of space by American and Soviet satellites.

An undated photo shows a Russian nuclear submarine operating in the Pacific. (Reuters Photographer/Reuters)

Nautilus travels under polar ice pack

In August 1958, the Nautilus—the first nuclear submarine—completed the first voyage below the polar icecap. The Nautilus traveled from Pearl Harbor to Iceland in four days, avoiding the Panama Canal and paving the way for a quicker route from the Pacific to the Atlantic and Europe. The voyage was important from both a scientific and a geopolitical perspective. On the scientific side, the Nautilus collected critical data and observations on the Arctic basin. On the geopolitical side, it ushered in the era of nuclear submarines, which would prove an important weapon in the Cold War; eventually, Soviet and U.S. submarines would develop the capacity to launch nuclear weapons on intercontinental ballistic missiles.

A seal swims by icebergs off the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera base in January 2009. (Reuters/Staff Photographer)

Antarctic Treaty signed

Signed in Washington, DC, on December 1, 1959, by the twelve nations active in the Antarctic at the time, the Antarctic Treaty ensures "in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord." In support of this goal, the treaty prohibits military activity in the Antarctic, as well as nuclear explosions and disposal of nuclear waste. It also promotes scientific research and collaborative exchange of information and holds all territorial claims in abeyance.

A forklift shovels one-ton containers of mustard gas over the side of a barge somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean in this 1964 photo. (AP Photo/U.S. Army via Daily Press)


The United Nations held its second conference on the law of the sea in 1960, again in Geneva, but no international agreements emerged from the meeting.

President John F. Kennedy tells the American people that the United States is setting up a naval blockade against Cuba during a television and radio address. (AP Photo/Bill Allen)

Naval blockade of Cuba

In the months leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, traffic of Soviet Bloc ships to Cuba increased substantially. Evidence began to mount during the summer and early fall of that year that Soviet ships were carrying materials to turn Cuba into an offensive Soviet military base. Once American spy planes photographed medium-range ballistic missile sites being built in Cuba, President Kennedy imposed a naval quarantine on Cuba—explicitly aimed at interdicting offensive weapons materiel. The quarantine began on October 22. Two days later, Soviet ships headed toward Cuba reversed course and only one Soviet vessel was boarded by the U.S. Navy. Consequently, despite extremely high tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, the naval blockade was able to keep outward hostilities at bay until President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev reached an agreement on the removal of Soviet offensive weapons from Cuba. The experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated the importance of naval power in conventional engagements during the Cold War. As a result of the crisis, the Soviet Union decided to review its naval policy, seeking a navy that could counterbalance that of the United States.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara indicates where U.S. Navy aircraft struck in retaliation for the Gulf of Tonkin attacks at a Pentagon news briefing on August 5, 1964. (AP Photo)

Gulf of Tonkin

In early 1964, the U.S. Navy began covert intelligence-gathering missions off the coast of North Vietnam in support of South Vietnamese commando operations against North Vietnamese targets. On August 2, a naval destroyer, the USS Maddox, was patrolling the North Vietnamese coast in the Gulf of Tonkin when North Vietnamese forces launched torpedoes against it. The torpedoes missed, however, and only one round of gunfire hit—but failed to damage—the Maddox. Two days later, on August 4, American naval forces reported an attack from North Vietnamese vessels against two destroyers far out at sea. Although we now know that there were no such attacks that day, reports of the incident persuaded Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, authorizing President Lyndon Johnson’s use of force against North Vietnamese communists. U.S. naval power continued to play an important role throughout the Vietnam War, which lasted until 1975: projecting power ashore in Vietnam, controlling the Vietnamese coast, and providing logistical support.

Soldiers and volunteers clean up an oil slick on April 14, 1967, on the beach of Port-Blanc as the Torrey Canyon disaster hits the coast of French Brittany. (Staff/AFP/Getty Images)

Torrey Canyon Disaster

The Supertanker Torrey Canyon shipwrecked off the coast of Cornwall County, the United Kingdom, in March 1967 due to a navigational error, creating the first major oil spill in history. The ship was carrying nearly 120,000 tons of crude oil when it struck Pollard’s Rock, contaminating almost two hundred miles of British and French coast and killing more than 15,000 sea birds and thousands more marine animals. The spill was made worse by the "detergent" that had been dumped in huge quantities into the ocean and on the beaches in and effort to disperse the slick. Scientists now estimate that the toxic effects of these chemicals were more harmful than the 270 square mile oil slick itself.

The Torrey Canyon incident highlighted several weaknesses in global maritime governance, and led to calls for increased regulation and reform. The response to the spill revealed doubts about the powers of states to intervene in incidents on the high seas. This led to the International Convention Relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties, which affirmed the rights of coastal states to take action to protect their coastlines from oil pollution. Furthermore, the disaster highlighted the environmental impact of oil pollution and led to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, which established international regulations for preventing oil pollution from discharge and dumping, but also from accidental damage through standards for the quantity, packaging, and stowage of oil. Finally, the Torrey Canyon disaster resulted in the largest ever marine oil claim brought by the British and French governments against the owners of the ship. The difficulty of enforcing the claim (a lawyer had to pretend to be a whiskey salesman to serve a writ against the ship owners) led to the first international convention on liability for ship owners, the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage.

The first British-built car designed especially for the United States is loaded onto a cargo ship in March 1954. (AP Photo)

Kennedy round of GATT negotiations

In 1967, the Kennedy round of negotiations on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade concluded, yielding a worldwide average reduction of tariffs by 35 percent, with some categories of tariffs eliminated entirely. As protectionism diminished, international trade grew, exploding growth in the shipping industry.

A member of the flight crew for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climbs on board one of their P-3 "Hurricane Hunters" in May 2008. (Reuters/Scott Audette)

Stratton Commission report and the EPA

In 1969, the Stratton Commission submitted its report, titled Our Nation and the Sea: A Plan for National Action, to the president and U.S. Congress. The report laid the foundations for subsequent American programs in support of marine science and resource development. Among the commission’s longest-lasting impacts was its recommendation to create the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency. In a related move the following year, President Richard Nixon set up the Environmental Protection Agency to establish and enforce environmental protection standards, conduct environmental research, combat environmental pollution, and assist in developing and recommending new policies for environmental protection.

Workers and volunteers clean engine fuel from a refrigerator ship that ran aground near Algeciras, Spain, in January 2007. (Reuters/Anton Meres)


After several incidents in which tanker accidents caused large oil spills and other environmental emergencies, an international conference passed the Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) in 1973. The convention focused on operational oil pollution, but also included several clauses on accidental pollution and pollution from other chemicals and wastes.

This was the first truly global effort to reduce pollution from ships, but by 1976 it had received only three ratifications. In response, a conference was held in 1978 to address the problems. The 1978 Protocol to MARPOL was adopted, changing the convention so that parties could ratify the part relating to oil, but not the part regarding other chemicals. The first part entered into force in 1983, creating the first international legally-binding instrument to govern the discharge of oil from tankers.

Fishermen collect fish at Central Europe’s biggest fish pond complex in Hortobagy, Hungary, in November 2007. (Laszlo Balogh/Reuters))

U.S. fisheries management legislation

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1976. The act created eight regional fishery management councils and phased out foreign fishing in American waters.

Scarcely visible, a crew member looks down from the stern of the supertanker "Atlantic Prosperity" in Valletta Harbor, December 2000. (Reuters Photographer/Reuters)

Construction begins on Seawise Giant

The length of four football fields and weighing 564,739 tons, the Seawise Giant is the largest supertanker ever built. The ship—though ultimately impractical in its size—demonstrates the increased importance of supertankers to the global economy as vehicles for transporting Middle Eastern oil to industrialized nations. Now owned by a Norwegian company, the ship was re-commissioned the Knock Nevis and is used as a floating storage and offloading unit.

Guided missile destroyer USS Kidd travels through the Atlantic Ocean in November 1982. (Time Life Pictures/US Navy/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)


The penultimate product of centuries of practice and three international conferences, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) created the governance framework for the world’s oceans and what lies above and beneath them. UNCLOS serves as the organizing instrument for all activities at sea, including defining waters and activities under national jurisdiction, waters under international regime, and provisions for environmental protection and marine scientific research. The convention concluded in 1982, replacing four previous treaties. UNCLOS entered into force in 1994 and has been joined by 162 countries and the European Community, including every major sea power, less the United States.

Emerging Global Challenges

Egyptian investigators take samples of possible blood stains on the Achille Lauro cruise ship in October 1985. (AP Photo/Michel Lipchitz)

Hijacking of MS Achille Lauro

On October 7, 1985, the cruise ship MS Achille Lauro was hijacked off the coast of Egypt. Four militants from the Palestinian Liberation Front took the passengers and crew hostage, demanding the release of fifty Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. While they eventually agreed to leave the ship, the hijackers killed Leon Klinghoffer, a disabled Jewish-American passenger.

This was one of the first major acts of terrorism at sea and the lack of coordination of an international response, including a standoff between Italian and U.S. troops, led to calls for an agreement on a coordinated response to terrorism at sea. This resulted in the adoption of the Convention on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts at Sea in 1988, which explicitly criminalized acts of terrorism at sea, established which states had a right to respond to terrorism, and set forth actions to be taken by those states. The convention entered into force in 1992 and continues to be used in conjunction with the Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea to fight international piracy and terrorism.

A scavenger in a dugout canoe paddles through a sea of garbage along a Manila waterway in November 2005. (Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images)

Massive garbage patch in Pacific

The existence of what is now a more than 1,700 mile wide patch of garbage in the Pacific was predicted [PDF] by several Alaska-based researchers studying neustonic plastic in the Pacific Ocean between 1985 and 1988. In 1988, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published their paper, which reported on high concentrations of marine debris in areas where there were particular ocean current patterns, specifically noting the Gyre area of the Northern Pacific. Their findings did not receive much notice until Charles Moore, a California ocean researcher, sailed through and documented the garbage patch in 1997. Since then, it has gained notoriety as an example of excessive marine pollution.

Scientists continue to study the garbage patch and estimate that it is now at least twice the size of Texas. Researchers are also trying to determine whether a similar garbage patch exists in the Atlantic Ocean.

Sea lions rest on a rock in the oily waters of Prince William Sound near Knight Island in April 1989. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Exxon Valdez oil spill

In March 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ruptured its hull on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of oil. The largest oil spill in American waters, the Exxon Valdez rupture was an environmental disaster, drawing greater attention and awareness to the problem of oil spills. In reaction, the U.S. Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which improved U.S. capacity to prevent and respond to oil spills. The Exxon Valdez event also led to a shift in the shipping industry, as the United States required that all new oil tankers for use in American ports be double hull tankers.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello signs the biological diversity convention on June 5, 1992. (AP Photo/Steve Berman)

Rio Earth Summit

In June 1992, 172 countries gathered at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, otherwise known as the Rio Earth Summit. The Rio summit resulted in the adoption of three important documents: The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and Agenda 21. The CBD has three main objectives: to conserve biological diversity, to use biological diversity in a sustainable fashion, and to share the benefits of biological diversity fairly and equitably. Together the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 establish principles and a plan of action for addressing serious issues of environmental and human development including degradation of marine systems.

In 1995, the Convention on Biological Diversity was updated with the addition of the Jakarta Mandate on Marine and Coastal Biological Diversity, which promotes five themes: integrated marine and coastal area management, marine and coastal living resources, marine and coastal protected areas, mariculture, and alien species. In addition, the Cartagena Protocol was added to the CBD in 2000, aiming to protect ecosystem biodiversity from threats stemming from advances in biotechnology. The next Earth Summit, also known as the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the summer of 2012.

A Polish technical diver explores the wreckage of the Al Qamar Al Saudi Al Misri ferry in the Red Sea, where it sank in May 1994 after a boiler explosion. (Reuters/Peter Andrews)

Agreement on UNCLOS provisions for deep sea mining

In 1990, signatories and nonsignatories of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea began negotiations over modifications to Part XI of the convention that might entice industrialized nations, and especially the United States, to join. The result of these consultations was the 1994 Agreement on Implementation, which established special provisions on technology transfer and deep seabed mining, and ensured an American seat on the International Seabed Authority.

Hundreds of fishing vessels fill Hong Kong’s Aberdeen typhoon shelter amid a fishing ban in the northern part of the South China Sea in June 1999. (Reuters Photographer/Reuters)

Agreement on conservation and management of fish stocks

The UN Agreement on the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, establishes principles for the conservation and management of fish stocks based on the precautionary principle, as well as the best-available scientific data. The agreement also reaffirms the importance of international cooperation in service of conservation and optimal use of fisheries. It entered into force in November 2001.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon walks on the sea ice near an Arctic research ship, 600 miles from the North Pole, in February 2009. (Ho New/Reuters)

Arctic Council

Formally established by the Ottawa Declaration in 1996, the Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum to promote cooperation among Arctic states and Arctic inhabitants on common challenges. It focuses on issues of sustainable development and protection of the Arctic environment. Member states of the Arctic Council include Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States. In May 2013, the Council was expanded to include six observer states: China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. The first agreement signed by the group occured in May 2011 with a legally binding treaty on search and rescue responsibilities.

A whale performs a tail slap just off the shore of Puerto Piramides in June 2007. Whales regularly come to breed and calve in this marine reserve. (Reuters/Maximiliano Jonas)

U.S. Marine Parks and Oceans Act

Signed by President Clinton, Executive Order 13158 significantly expanded the network of marine protected areas (MPAs) within American waters and created a system of MPAs that were representative of diverse marine ecosystems. The order also pledged to avoid damage to MPAs by federally approved, conducted, or funded activities. President Bush carried on the effort to establish MPAs by creating marine parks in the Pacific Ocean in 2009—the largest-ever marine conservation effort.

On July 25, 2000, Congress passed the Oceans Act, establishing the U.S. Commission on Oceans Policy to make recommendations for a coordinated and comprehensive U.S. oceans policy. In September 2004, the commission produced An Ocean Blueprint for the Twenty-First Century, which contained 212 recommendations on various aspects of ocean policy. One of the main recommendations was more coordinated federal action on oceans, which led to the development of the Committee on Ocean Policy in late 2004. The mandate of the U.S. Commission on Oceans Policy expired in December 2004.

The port-side damage to the guided missile destroyer USS Cole is pictured after a bomb attack during a refueling operation on October 12, 2000. (STR New/Reuters)

Bombing of the USS Cole

While refueling in Yemen, the USS Cole was attacked by al-Qaeda terrorists under Osama bin Laden’s leadership. A small boat carrying explosives detonated alongside the Cole, causing the deaths of seventeen sailors. Although U.S. naval power projection had long been a symbol of American predominance, this attack demonstrated the vulnerability of U.S. forces abroad, both on land and at sea.

Singapore army personnel investigate suspicious material during a nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons exercise south of Tokyo in October 2007. (Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters)

Proliferation Security Initiative launched

The U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) established a framework for interdiction of nuclear weapons materials while they are in maritime transit. Under ship-boarding agreements, authority may be extended on a bilateral basis to board sea vessels suspected of carrying materials related to weapons of mass destruction. Aside from the United States, ten other nations initially joined the PSI: Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Since then, more than ninety nations have joined the initiative, including Russia and South Korea. Notably absent from the initiative is China, which argues that it is against international laws providing for freedom of the seas.

A comb jellyfish is collected off the Wassteri Reef in this undated photograph. (Reuters/Queensland Museum/Gary Cranitch/Handout)

UNGA establishes conservation working group

In 2004, the UN General Assembly established an Informal Open-Ended Working Group to consider issues related to conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Since its inception in 2004, the group has met and reported to the General Assembly twice, in 2006 and 2008. At the 2006 meeting, it primarily outlined the basis of marine biological diversity conservation and sustainable use going forward. It also established the need for a more coordinated policy in waters beyond national jurisdiction, asserted the central role that the General Assembly will play in these efforts, and reaffirmed the centrality of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In their 2008 report, the group co-chairs emphasized the need for area-based management of marine resources, coordination and cooperation among state and intergovernmental organizations and bodies on conservation efforts, and the detrimental impact of anthropogenic activities on the environment.

The next year, the UN established the Task Force on Biodiversity in Marine Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction to coordinate efforts among UN agencies and other relevant institutions toward preservation of marine biodiversity in global waters. The goal is to develop an overview of the global allocation of biodiversity in marine areas beyond national jurisdiction, including an assessment of the wellbeing of biodiversity and potential sources of danger in these areas. In the interest of preservation, the task force is also expected to propose legal tools, on both international and regional levels, to protect biodiversity.

The Apung 1, an electric generator ship, sits high over the roofs of homes in Banda Aceh, Sumatra, where the 2004 tsunami carried the vessel over 2 kilometers inland. (Reuters/Tarmizy Harva)

Earthquake triggers deadly tsunami

A magnitude 9.1 earthquake—the the third most powerful since 1900—struck off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, sending devastating tidal waves across the Indian Ocean. The tsunami killed over 230,000 people, displaced 1.5 million more, and leveled entire coastal cities. Scientists estimate waves as high as 85 feet above sea level surged towards the Indonesian coastline nearest the earthquake’s epicenter.

In the months following the disaster, humanitarian agencies and foreign governments pledged a total of $13.6 billion in aid, surpassing the amount requested. While initial disaster relief succeeded in avoiding major outbreaks of disease and starvation, later reports indicated poor management of relief funds.

The widespread failure to notify civilian populations about the tsunami led the United Nations Education Science and Cultural Organization to design an tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean. The entire operation went online in 2006.

Members of the Teamsters Union rally across the street from the Seagirt Terminal in Baltimore, Maryland, in February 2006. (STR New/Reuters)

Dubai Ports World controversy

In 2006, Dubai Ports World, a United Arab Emirates-based port management company, attempted to buy management rights to six American ports from British-owned Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. Revelation of the deal unleashed an outcry in the U.S. Congress, as politicians decried the sale as a threat to American national security. Despite President Bush’s support, congressional pressure was too great and U.S.-based AIG ultimately purchased the contract. The controversy demonstrates that in the current global environment, shipping is not only an economic issue but also a national security concern. Port security has become an important challenge as policymakers and law enforcement officials shift their focus toward ways to secure ports, as well as toward the global supply chain more generally.

A video grab shows a Russian miniature submarine as its robotic arm plants the Russian flag on the seabed below the North Pole on August 2, 2007. (Reuters/Reuters TV)

Race for control of the Arctic

On August 1, 2007, after almost one week of plowing through deep ice, Russian ships reached the North Pole and planted a titanium cast Russian flag nearly fourteen thousand feet below the surface. This dramatic move marked the latest chapter in developing tensions over control of the Arctic, with countries seeing the region as the next frontier in shipping and transportation.

Just a month after the placement of the Russian flag, the European Space Agency announced that the Northwest Passage was free from ice for the first time on record, making it fully navigable and further fueling a dispute between Canada, the United States, the European Union, and indigenous groups over control of the Arctic passage. Since then, each party has been jockeying for control of the region (though some disputes have been resolved peacefully).

Suspected Somali pirates sit behind the bars of a court in Yemen’s southern port city of Aden on July 15, 2009. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)

Somali pirates and UNSC Resolution 1851

In November 2008, Somali pirates boarded and seized a Saudi oil tanker off the Horn of Africa. In reaction to this and other similar incidents in the Gulf of Aden, the UN Security Council (UNSC) approved a resolution allowing pursuit of suspected pirates into Somali territory. Whereas international law enforcement efforts had previously been constrained to maritime pursuits, the UNSC resolution extended their authority to "undertake all necessary measures that are appropriate in Somalia, for the purpose of suppressing acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea." It also encouraged development of an international cooperation mechanism for states and organizations to coordinate their efforts to combat piracy. Finally, it encouraged states and regional organizations to establish bilateral relationships with countries that are willing to accept apprehended pirates into their legal systems for investigation and prosecution.

After incidences of piracy peaked in 2011, the International Maritime Bureau reported a 28 percent decline in attacks in the first quarter of 2012. In particular, incidences off the coast of Somalia declined by half—from ninety-seven to forty-three—largely due to the increased efforts of ad hoc coalitions patrolling the Gulf of Aden.

This undated image from the Center for Northern Studies shows the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf disintegrating. (Reuters/Denis Sarrazin/Center for Northern Studies/Handout)

First commercial interocean northern transit

In August 2009, two Bremen-based vessels successfully traversed the previously impenetrable Northern Sea Route (NSR). Both ships set sail from Ulsan, South Korea, entered the NSR via Vladivostok, and proceeded to Rotterdam via Murmansk. Most experts agree that the NSR opening is the result of climate change, demonstrating one of many ways that global warming will affect international commerce.

South Korean army soldiers attend an exercise before a marines landing drill at Mallipo beach in Taean, southwest of Seoul, in November 2010. (Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon)

Korean skirmishes in the Yellow Sea

In March 2010, a South Korean naval ship sank in the Yellow Sea, killing forty-six. North Korea denied responsibility, but an international investigation concluded that the Cheonan had been sunk by a North Korean homing torpedo.

Eight months later, North Korea shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeon in response to an annual South Korean naval exercise. In response, South Korea returned fire and scrambled fighter jets. Two South Korean marines died and sixteen were injured.

The United States, United Kingdom, and Russia all condemned the North Korean shelling and China called on both Koreas to "do more to contribute to peace." Meanwhile, the United States dispatched a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to the Yellow Sea with seventy-five jet fighters on board. The International Criminal Court has launched a preliminary investigation into allegations that North Korean forces committed war crimes by shelling civilian areas in South Korea and sinking the Cheonan.

Oil-covered pelicans sit in a pen waiting to be cleaned at a rescue center facility in Fort Jackson, Louisiana, on June 7, 2010. (Reuters/Sean Gardner)

Gulf of Mexico oil spill

On April 20, 2010, an offshore drilling rig caught fire, exploded, and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, killing eleven workers. Despite several attempts to cap the well, 205.8 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico before the well was declared dead on September 19.

The rig was owned by Transocean and had been lent to British Petroleum (BP). BP officials and the U.S. Coast Guard worked to contain the spill, using controlled burns to keep oil away from the coast. Nonetheless, the slick reached shores along the gulf, endangering local marine life and industries. BP has said it will pay for the cleanup, which could cost up to $8 billion (though estimates vary). After visiting the site, President Barack Obama called the oil spill a "potentially unprecedented environmental disaster," and his administration has designated it an "incident of national significance."

Responding to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, leaders of the Group of Twenty at the Toronto Summit explored ways to prevent marine disasters and to deal with their consequences. The group considered [PDF] sharing best practices on protecting the marine environment and preventing accidents related to offshore drilling and transportation.

A man rides a bicycle past containers at a port in Shanghai on June 24, 2009. (Reuters/Aly Song)

Intercepted shipping containers

In October 2010, shipping containers filled with illegal weapons from Iran were seized in Lagos, Nigeria, despite a 2007 UN Security Council Resolution banning Iranian arms exports.

The incident highlighted the difficulty of monitoring container shipping on the ocean, which comprises the vast majority of international trade. Despite the approximately 14.5 million cargo boxes that reach U.S. shores each year, only 1 percent of these boxes are scanned abroad. The United States attempts to address this vulnerability through the Container Security Initiative (CSI), which aims to prescreen all containers destined for the United States and isolate those that pose a high-security risk.

Coral and fish intermingle in the Great Barrier Reef in January 2002. (Reuters/Centre for Marine Studies, The University of Queensland/Ove Hoegh-Guldberg/Handout)

Landmark biodiversity agreement

After six years of negotiations, over 190 UN members created the Nagoya Protocol to the Convention of Biological Diversity. The protocol aims to cut the current extinction rate by at least half by 2020, and increase the amount of protected oceans from current levels (less than 1 percent) to 10 percent.

The agreement was struck at the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 10) in Nagoya, Japan, and has been called "the most important UN environmental agreement since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol."

A worker cuts off a shark’s fin at a private dock in Puntarenas, California, on October 12, 2010. (Reuters/Juan Carlos Ulate)

Global fish stocks in danger

At the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) in November 2010, its forty-eight members agreed to slight reductions in catch quotas for Atlantic bluefin tuna. The agreement followed a report that catalogued the rapid disappearance of the species—black market tuna alone yields approximately $4 billion per year (though more sustainable fishing practices could raise the value of global fisheries by up to $36 billion). At the same annual meeting, the ICCAT successfully banned the fishing and sale of oceanic white tip sharks and six types of hammerhead sharks.

In December 2010, experts from the United Nations Environmental Program released a report entitled "Fisheries Subsidies, Sustainable Development, and the WTO" [PDF] stressing the importance of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) involvement in global fishing subsidy regulation. While the fishing industry remains a source of food and financial security for approximately a billion people worldwide, a report predicted that the world’s fish stocks will be completely depleted by 2050 unless coordinated actions are taken in the future.

Administrator of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Thomas D’Agostino and Vice Minister of the General Administration of Customs of China Lu Peijun at the commissioning of a radiation detection system at the Yangshan Port December 7, 2011. (REUTERS/Aly Song)

China and United States launch port security initiative

In December, Chinese and American officials implemented a new radiation detection system at a port in Shanghai. Port security was identified as a major threat in the wake of September 11 and the United States has made a concerted effort to improve security measures. The agreement is a part of a broader effort by the United States, called the Megaports Initiative, which is operated by the Department of Energy and collaborates with international partners to improve nuclear detection capabilities. Nuclear proliferation is a topic where the United States and China have often been in conflict, but this, along with previous agreements, has been viewed as a positive example of cooperation between the two states.

A man fishes from a pier near the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge in San Francisco, California September 2, 2011. (Courtesy REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)

U.S. sets unprecedented fishing limits

In January 2012, the United States celebrated a historic milestone for environmental conservation: it became the first country in the world to place catch limits on all federally managed fish. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that the policy, instituted through the 2006 Reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, will be fully implemented by the 2012 fishing season. Many environmentalists hailed the move as an excellent step towards a sustainable oceans policy. Some species, like the mahi mahi for example, will have catch limits placed on them for the first time in history. Joshua Reichert, director of the Pew Environment Group, stated, "This simple but enormously powerful provision had eluded lawmakers for years and is probably the most important conservation statute ever enacted into America’s fisheries law." However, critics argue that the new limits are based on flawed underestimates of fish populations and could potentially threaten the livelihood of local economies dependant on fishing.

A Thai fisherman catches white tilapia fish (Sukree Sukplang/Courtesy Reuters).

World Bank launches Global Oceans Alliance

In February 2012, World Bank president Robert Zoellick announced the launch of a new initiative dedicated to better managing and protecting oceans to combat the "tragedy of the commons." The Global Oceans Alliance is a multi-billion dollar initiative, spearheaded by the World Bank, spanning five years and seeking to aid governments with the creation, implementation, and operation of practices to safeguard marine protected areas and depleted fishing stocks. According to World Bank data, 85 percent of global fisheries are exploited, overexploited, or severely depleted. This is the latest in a series of moves to raise the World Bank’s profile on environmental issues, following a high-profile meeting in September that convened officials and businesses.

A women walks to her car at a Shell gas station in Phoenix, Arizona (Joshua Lott/Courtesy Reuters).

Shell permitted to drill in Arctic

After seven years and $4 billion in corporate lobbying and public relations campaigns directed at two U.S. administrations, the Obama administration approved Royal Dutch Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic Ocean. If all proceeds smoothly, Shell would be the first oil giant to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean since the early 1990s. Although the melting Arctic has opened up vast new economic opportunities, the move has sparked fresh environmental concerns. The controversial nongovernmental organization, Greenpeace, is planning on sending submarines to monitor Shell’s oil drilling, and environmental activists have warned about the potential risk of oil spills. The Government Accountability Office also released a report warning of insufficient safeguards to "contain a well blowout or clean up a spill in rough Arctic conditions."

Coral on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef suffering from bleaching (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).

Coral reef protection

At the twelfth International Coral Reef Symposium, over two thousand scientists signed a petition calling for greater and better coordinated international efforts to preserve the world’s coral reefs. Pollution and climate change are major threats to coral reefs. A recent report by the World Resources Institute and Coral Triangle Support Partnership argued that at least 60 percent of the worldwide reefs and 85 percent of the reefs in the Coral Triangle, the region from Malaysia and the Philippines to the Solomon Islands, are at risk.

Protestors sing patriotic songs to protest Japanese claims to a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).

Tensions flare in the East China Sea

In September 2012, Japan purchased three islands in the East China Sea that form part of the Senkaku Islands, known as the Diaoyu Islands to the Chinese. The islands, claimed by both countries, have been controlled by Japan since 1895, but sovereignty remains hotly contested. Following the Japanese announcement, protests broke out across China and leaders accused Japan of "severely infringing" upon their sovereignty.

In a move to affirm its claim to the islands, China announced its intention to submit their objections to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and dispatched patrol ships to monitor the islands. Both sides remain adamant that there is no room for negotiations over their control of the islands, which are in close proximity to strategic shipping routes, fishing grounds, and potentially lucrative oil reserves.

Sunlight shines just after midnight on a fjord near the Norwegian Arctic town of Longyearbyen (Francois Lenoir/Courtesy Reuters).

Arctic melting smashes records

In September 2012, ice in the Arctic Ocean reached an all-time low of 24 percent, shattering the previous record of 29 percent from 2007. The finding not only has implications for climate change and environmental stability, but also for heightened competition among states jockeying for access to critical resources in the region. For the first time, the melting Arctic has exposed troves of natural resources including oil, gas, and minerals, as well as newly accessible shipping routes. The United States, Russia, and several European states already control parts of the Arctic, and China is also an increasing presence.

A Philippines naval warship docked in Manila (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).

Philippines challenges Chinese maritime claims to South China Sea

The Philippine government announced its intention to take China to an international arbitration tribunal based on claims that China violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The dispute dates back to mid-2012, when tensions flared after the Philippines claimed that Chinese vessels were fishing illegally in the Scarborough shoal. The dispute was further exacerbated by joint military exercises conducted by the United States and the Philippines, which reportedly included mock beach invasions.

China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines have competing territorial and jurisdictional claims to the South China Sea, particularly over rights to exploit its potentially vast oil and gas reserves. Control over strategic shipping lanes and freedom of navigation are also increasingly contested, especially between the United States and China.

A Chinese naval frigate leaves Valletta’s Grand Harbour on March 30, 2013 following a four-month anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. (Darrin Zammit/Courtesy Reuters).

IMO pledges to support implementation of new code of conduct on piracy

At a ministerial meeting in Cotonou, Benin, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) pledged to support the implementation of a new code of conduct on piracy and other illicit maritime activity. The Gulf of Guinea Code of Conduct, drafted by the Economic Community of Central African States and the Economic Community of West African States, in partnership with the IMO, contains provisions for interdicting sea- and land-based vehicles engaged in illegal activities at sea, prosecuting suspected criminals, and sharing information between state parties. The code builds on several existing frameworks to create a subregional coast guard. The agreement opened for signature in May 2013.

A man transports sharks after buying them at a fish auction (Tarmizy Harva/Courtesy Reuters).

States increase international regulation on fishing

Two new restrictions related to the trade in fish occurred in early 2013, demonstrating a growing effort to preserve marine life. In March, delegates attending the annual meeting on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) voted to place robust export restrictions on five species of sharks and two species of manta rays. Although experts cautioned that the new rules would be difficult to enforce in practice, the decision marked an important victory over economic interests, particularly of China and Japan. In May, the European Parliament agreed to a sustainable fisheries policy that sets fishing limits to a level that would allow depleted stocks to recover and bans the practice of throwing back fish of unwanted species or size.

Issue Brief

Scope of the Challenge

Oceans are the source of life on earth. They shape the climate, feed the world, and cleanse the air we breathe. They are vital to our economic well being, ferrying roughly 90 percent of global commerce, housing submarine cables, and providing one-third of traditional hydrocarbon resources (as well as new forms of energy such as wave, wind, and tidal power). But the oceans are increasingly threatened by a dizzying array of dangers, from piracy to climate change. To be good stewards of the oceans, nations around the world need to embrace more effective multilateral governance in the economic, security, and environmental realms.

The world’s seas have always been farmed from top to bottom. New technologies, however, are making old practices unsustainable. When commercial trawlers scrape the sea floor, they bulldoze entire ecosystems. Commercial ships keep to the surface but produce carbon-based emissions. And recent developments like offshore drilling and deep seabed mining are helping humans extract resources from unprecedented depths, albeit with questionable environmental impact. And as new transit routes open in the melting Arctic, this once-forgotten pole is emerging as a promising frontier for entrepreneurial businesses and governments.

But oceans are more than just sources of profit—they also serve as settings for transnational crime. Piracy, drug smuggling, and illegal immigration all occur in waters around the world. Even the most sophisticated ports struggle to screen cargo, containers, and crews without creating regulatory friction or choking legitimate commerce. In recent history, the United States has policed the global commons, but growing Indian and Chinese blue-water navies raise new questions about how an established security guarantor should accommodate rising—and increasingly assertive—naval powers.

And the oceans themselves are in danger of environmental catastrophe. They have become the world’s garbage dump—if you travel to the heart of the Pacific Ocean, you’ll find the North Pacific Gyre, where particles of plastic outweigh plankton six to one. Eighty percent of the world’s fish stocks are depleted or on the verge of extinction, and when carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, much of it is absorbed by the world’s oceans. The water, in response, warms and acidifies, destroying habitats like wetlands and coral reefs. Glacial melting in the polar regions raises global sea levels, which threatens not only marine ecosystems but also humans who live on or near a coast. Meanwhile, port-based megacities dump pollution in the ocean, exacerbating the degradation of the marine environment and the effects of climate change.

Threats to the ocean are inherently transnational, touching the shores of every part of the world. So far, the most comprehensive attempt to govern international waters produced the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But U.S. refusal to join the convention, despite widespread bipartisan support, continues to limit its strength, creating a leadership vacuum in the maritime regime. Other states that have joined the treaty often ignore its guidelines or fail to coordinate policies across sovereign jurisdictions. Even if it were perfectly implemented, UNCLOS is now thirty years old and increasingly outdated.

Important initiatives—such as local fishery arrangements and the United Nations Environment Programme Regional Seas Program—form a disjointed landscape that lacks legally binding instruments to legitimize or enforce their work. The recent UN Conference on Sustainable Development ("Rio+20") in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, convened over one hundred heads of state to assess progress and outline goals for a more sustainable "blue-green economy." However, the opportunity to set actionable targets to improve oceans security and biodiversity produced few concrete outcomes. As threats to the oceans become more pressing, nations around the world need to rally to create and implement an updated form of oceans governance.

Oceans Governance: Strengths & Weaknesses

Overall assessment

Overall assessment: A fragmented system

In 1982, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) established the fundamental legal principles for oceans governance. This convention, arguably the largest and most complex treaty ever negotiated, entered into force in 1994. Enshrined as a widely accepted corpus of international common law, UNCLOS clearly enumerates the rights, responsibilities, and jurisdictions of states in their use and management of the world’s oceans. The treaty defines "exclusive economic zones", which is the coastal water and seabed—extending two hundred nautical miles from shore—over which a state has special rights over the use of marine resources; establishes the limits of a country’s "territorial sea," or the sovereign territory of a state that extends twelve nautical miles from shore; and clarifies rules for transit through "international straits." It also addresses—with varying degrees of effectiveness—resource division, maritime traffic, and pollution regulation, as well as serves as the principal forum for dispute resolution on ocean-related issues.To date, 166 countries and the European Union have ratified UNCLOS.

UNCLOS is a remarkable achievement, but its resulting oceans governance regime suffers several serious limitations. First, the world’s leading naval power, the United States, is not party to the convention, which presents obvious challenges to its effectiveness—as well as undermines U.S. sovereignty, national interests, and ability to exercise leadership over resource management and dispute resolution. Despite the myriad military, economic, and political benefits offered by UNCLOS, a small but vocal minority in the United States continues to block congressional ratification.

Second, UNCLOS, is now thirty years old and, as a result, does not adequately address a number of emerging and increasingly important international issues, such as fishing on the high seas—a classic case of the tragedy of the commons—widespread maritime pollution, and transnational crime committed at sea.

Third, both UNCLOS and subsequent multilateral measures have weak surveillance, capacity-building, and enforcement mechanisms. Although various UN bodies support the instruments created by UNCLOS, they have no direct role in their implementation. Individual states are responsible for ensuring that the convention’s rules are enforced—which presents obvious challenges in areas of overlapping or contested sovereignty, or effectively stateless parts of the world. The UN General Assembly plays a role in advancing the oceans agenda at the international level, but its recommendations are weak and further constrained by its lack of enforcement capability.

Organizations that operate in conjunction with UNCLOS—such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), and the International Seabed Authority (ISA)—play an important role in protecting the oceans and strengthening oceans governance. The IMO has helped to reduce ship pollution to historically low levels, although it can be slow to enact new policy on issues such as invasive species, which are dispersed around the world in ballast water. ITLOS only functions if member states are willing to submit their differences to its judgment, while the ISA labors in relative obscurity and operates under intense pressure from massive commercial entities.

Fourth, coastal states struggle to craft domestic policies that incorporate the many interconnected challenges faced by the oceans, from transnational drug smuggling to protecting ravaged fish stocks to establishing proper regulatory measures for offshore oil and gas drilling. UNCLOS forms a solid platform on which to build additional policy architecture, but requires coastal states to first make comprehensive oceans strategy a priority—a goal that has remained elusive thus far.

Fifth, the system is horizontally fragmented and fails to harmonize domestic, regional, and international policies. Domestically, local, state, and federal maritime actors rarely coordinate their agendas and priorities. Among the handful of countries and regional organizations that have comprehensive ocean policies—including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, the European Union, and most recently the United States—few synchronize their activities with other countries. The international community, however, is attempting to organize the cluttered oceans governance landscape. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Regional Seas Program works to promote cooperation for marine and coastal management, albeit with varying degrees of success and formal codification. Likewise, in 2007 the European Union instituted a regional Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP) that addresses a range of environmental, social, and economic issues related to oceans, as well as promotes surveillance and information sharing. The IMP also works with neighboring partners to create an integrated oceans policy in places such as the Arctic, the Baltic, and the Mediterranean.

Lastly, there is no global evaluation framework to assess progress. No single institution is charged with monitoring and collecting national, regional, and global data on the full range of oceans-related issues, particularly on cross-cutting efforts. Periodic data collecting does take place in specific sectors, such as biodiversity conservation, fisheries issues, and marine pollution, but critical gaps remain. The Global Ocean Observing System is a promising portal for tracking marine and ocean developments, but it is significantly underfunded. Without concrete and reliable data, it is difficult to craft effective policies that address and mitigate emerging threats.

Despite efforts, oceans continue to deteriorate and a global leadership vacuum persists. Much work remains to modernize existing institutions and conventions to respond effectively to emerging threats, as well as to coordinate national actions within and across regions. The June 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+20, identified oceans (or the "blue economy") as one of the seven priority areas for sustainable development. Although experts and activists hoped for a new agreement to strengthen the sustainable management and protection of oceans and address modern maritime challenges such as conflicting sovereignty claims, international trade, and access to resources, Rio+20 produced few concrete results.

Maintaining freedom of the seas

Maintaining freedom of the seas: Guaranteed by U.S. power, increasingly contested by emerging states

The United States polices every ocean throughout the world. The U.S. navy is unmatched in its ability to provide strategic stability on, under, and above the world’s waters. With almost three hundred active naval ships and almost four thousand aircraft, its battle fleet tonnage is greater than the next thirteen largest navies combined. Despite recently proposed budget cuts to aircraft carriers, U.S. naval power continues to reign supreme.

The United States leverages its naval capabilities to ensure peace, stability, and freedom of access. As Great Britain ensured a Pax Britannica in the nineteenth century, the United States presides over relatively tranquil seas where global commerce is allowed to thrive. In 2007, the U.S. Navy released a strategy report that called for "cooperative relationships with more international partners" to promote "greater collective security, stability, and trust."

The United States pursues this strategy because it has not faced a credible competitor since the end of the Cold War. And, thus far, emerging powers have largely suported the U.S. armada to ensure that the oceans remain open to commerce. However, emerging powers with blue-water aspirations raise questions about how U.S. naval hegemony will accommodate new and assertive fleets in the coming decades. Even tensions between these rising powers could prove problematic. China, for instance, has been steadily building up its naval capabilities over the past decade as part of its "far sea defense" strategy. It unveiled its first aircraft carrier in 2010, and is investing heavily in submarines outfitted with ballistic missiles. At the same time, India has scaled up its military budget by 64 percent since 2001, and plans to spend nearly $45 billion over the next twenty years on its navy.

Even tensions among these rising powers could prove problematic. For example, a two-month standoff between China and the Philippines over a disputed region of the South China Sea ended with both parties committing to a "peaceful resolution." China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines have competing territorial and jurisdictional claims to the South China Sea, particularly over rights to exploit its potentially vast oil and gas reserves. Control over strategic shipping lanes and freedom of navigation are also increasingly contested, especially between the United States and China.

Confronting illicit trafficking

Confronting illicit trafficking: Porous, patchy enforcement

In addition to being a highway for legal commerce, oceans facilitate the trafficking of drugs, weapons, and humans, which are often masked by the flow of licit goods. Individual states are responsible for guarding their own coastlines, but often lack the will or capacity to do so. Developing countries, in particular, struggle to coordinate across jurisdictions and interdict. But developed states also face border security challenges. Despite its commitment to interdiction, the United States seizes less than 20 percent of the drugs that enter the country by maritime transport.

The United Nations (UN) attempts to combat the trafficking of drugs, weapons, and humans at sea. Through the Container Control Program [PDF], the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) assists domestic law enforcement in five developing countries to establish effective container controls to prevent maritime drug smuggling. The UNODC also oversees UN activity on human trafficking, guided by two protocols to the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime. Although UN activity provides important groundwork for preventing illicit maritime trafficking, it lacks monitoring and enforcement mechanisms and thus has a limited impact on the flow of illegal cargo into international ports. Greater political will, state capacity, and multilateral coordination will be required to curb illicit maritime trafficking.

New ad hoc multilateral arrangements are a promising model for antitrafficking initiatives. The International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, for instance, provides a uniform set of measures to enhance the security of ships and ports. The code helps member states control their ports and monitor both the people and cargo that travel through them. In addition, the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative facilitates international cooperation to interdict ships on the high seas that may be carrying illicit weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles, and related technology. Finally, the Container Security Initiative (CSI), also spearheaded by the United States, attempts to prescreen all containers destined for U.S. ports and identify high-risk cargo (for more information, see section on commercial shipping).

One way to combat illicit trafficking is through enhanced regional arrangements, such as the Paris Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control. This agreement provides a model for an effective regional inspections regime, examining at least 25 percent of ships that enter members’ ports for violations of conventions on maritime safety. Vessels that violate conventions can be detained and repeat offenders can be banned from the memorandum’s area. Although the agreement does not permit searching for illegal cargo, it does show how a regional inspections regime could be effective at stemming illegal trafficking.

Securing commercial shipping

Securing commercial shipping: Global supply chains at risk

Global shipping is incredibly lucrative, but its sheer scope and breadth presents an array of security and safety challenges. The world fleet consists of approximately 50,000 ships registered in more than 150 nations. With more than one million employees, this armada transports nearly eight billion tons [PDF] of goods per year—roughly 90 percent of global trade. And the melting Arctic is opening previously impassable trade routes; in 2009, two German merchant vessels traversed the Northeast Passage successfully for the first time in recent history. But despite impressive innovations in the shipping industry, maritime accidents and attacks on ships still occur frequently, resulting in the loss of billions of dollars of cargo. Ensuring the safety and security of the global shipping fleet is essential for the stability of the world economy.

Internationally, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) provides security guidelines for ships through the Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea, which governs everything from construction to the number of fire extinguishers on board. The IMO also aims to prevent maritime accidents through international standards for navigation and navigation equipment, including satellite communications and locating devices. Although compliance with these conventions has been uneven, regional initiatives such as the Paris Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control have helped ensure the safety of international shipping.

In addition, numerous IMO conventions govern the safety of container shipping, including the International Convention on Safe Containers, which creates uniform regulations for shipping containers, and the International Convention on Load Lines, which determines the volume of containers a ship can safely hold. However, these conventions do not provide comprehensive security solutions for maritime containers, and illegal cargo could be slipped into shipping containers during transit. Since 1992, the IMO has tried to prevent attacks on commercial shipping through the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, which provides a legal framework for interdicting, detaining, and prosecuting terrorists, pirates, and other criminals on the high seas.

In reality, most enforcement efforts since the 9/11 attacks have focused on securing ports to prevent the use of a ship to attack, rather than to prevent attacks on the ships themselves. Reflecting this imperative, the IMO, with U.S. leadership, implemented the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS) in 2004. This code helped create international standards for ship security, requiring ships to have security plans and officers. However, as with port security, the code is not obligatory and no clear process to audit or certify ISPS compliance has been established. Overall, a comprehensive regime for overseeing the safety of international shipping has not been created.

The United States attempts to address this vulnerability through the Container Security Initiative (CSI), which aims to prescreen all containers destined for the United States, and to isolate those that pose a high-security risk before they are in transit. The initiative, which operates in fifty-eight foreign ports, covers more than 86 percent of container cargo en route to the United States. Several international partners and organizations, including the European Union, the Group of Eight, and the World Customs Organization, have expressed an interest in modeling security measures for containerized cargo based on the CSI model. Despite these efforts, experts estimate that only 2 percent of containers destined for U.S. ports are actually inspected.

Combating piracy

Combating piracy: Resurgent scourge, collective response

After the number of attacks reached a record high in 2011, incidences of piracy dropped 28 percent in the first three months of 2012. Overall, the number of worldwide attacks decreased from 142 to 102 cases, primarily due to international mobilization and enhanced naval patrols off the coast of Somalia. However, attacks intensified near Nigeria and Indonesia as pirates shifted routes in response to increased policing, raising fresh concerns over the shifting and expanding threat of piracy. In addition to the human toll, pervasive piracy can have significant economic ramifications. According to a report by the World Bank, The Pirates of Somalia, Ending the Threat, Rebuilding a Nation [PDF], the global economy is losing 18 billion dollars per year due to the increased costs of trade caused by Somali piracy. Sustained international coordination and cooperation is essential to preventing and prosecuting piracy.

Recognizing this imperative, countries from around the world have shown unprecedented cooperation to combat piracy, particularly near the Gulf of Aden. In August 2009, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization commenced Operation Ocean Shield in the horn of Africa, where piracy increased close to 200 percent between 2007 and 2009. This effort built upon Operation Allied Protector and consisted of two standing maritime groups with contributions from allied nations. Although the efforts concentrate on protecting ships passing through the Gulf of Aden, they also renewed focus on helping countries, specifically Somalia, prevent piracy and secure their ports. Meanwhile, the United States helped establish Combined Task Force 151 to coordinate the various maritime patrols in East Africa. Other countries including Russia, India, China, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and South Korea, have also sent naval vessels to the region.

At the same time, regional organizations have also stepped up antipiracy efforts. The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia was the first of such initiatives, and has been largely successful in facilitating information-sharing, cooperation between governments, and interdiction efforts. And in May 2012, the European Union naval force launched its first air attack against Somali pirates’ land bases, the first strike of its kind by outside actors to date.

Like individual countries, international institutions have condemned piracy and legitimized the use of force against pirates. In June 2008, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1816, encouraging greater cooperation in deterring piracy and asking countries to provide assistance to Somalia to help ensure coastal security. This was followed by Resolution 1846, which allowed states to use "all necessary means" to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia. In Resolution 1851, the UN Security Council legitimized the use of force on land as well as at sea to the same end. Outside the UN, watchdogs such as the International Maritime Bureau, which collects information on pirate attacks and provides reports on the safety of shipping routes, have proven successful in increasing awareness, disseminating information, and facilitating antipiracy cooperation.

However, such cooperative efforts face several legal challenges. The United States has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs crimes, including piracy, in international waters. More broadly, the international legal regime continues to rely on individual countries to prosecute pirates, and governments have been reluctant to take on this burden. Accordingly, many pirates are apprehended, only to be quickly released. In addition, many large commercial vessels rely on private armed guards to prevent pirate attacks, but the legal foundations governing such a force are shaky at best.

National governments have redoubled efforts to bring pirates to justice as well. In 2010, the United States held its first piracy trial since its civil war, soon followed by Germany’s first trial in over four hundred years. Other agreements have been established to try pirates in nearby countries like Kenya, such as the UNODC Trust Fund to Support the Initiatives of States to Counter Piracy of the Coast of Somalia, established in January 2010. Under the mandate of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, the fund aims to defray the financial capital required from countries like Kenya, Seychelles, and Somalia to prosecute pirates, as well as to increase awareness within Somali society of the risk associated with piracy and criminal activity. Future efforts to combat piracy should continue to focus on enhancing regional cooperation and agreements, strengthening the international and domestic legal instruments necessary to prosecute pirates, and addressing the root causes of piracy.

Reducing marine pollution and climate change

Reducing marine pollution and climate change: Mixed progress

Pollution has degraded environments and ravaged biodiversity in every ocean. Much contamination stems from land-based pollutants, particularly along heavily developed coastal areas. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Regional Seas Program has sponsored several initiatives to control pollution, modeled on a relatively successful program in the Mediterranean Sea. In 1995, states established the Global Program of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities, which identifies sources of land-based pollution and helps states establish priorities for action. It has been successful in raising awareness about land-based pollution and offering technical assistance to regional implementing bodies, which are so often starved for resources. More recently, 193 UN member states approved the Nagoya Protocol on biodiversity, which aims to halve the marine extinction rate by 2020 and extend protection to 10 percent of the world’s oceans.

Shipping vessels are also a major source of marine pollution. Shipping is the most environmentally friendly way to transport bulk cargoes, but regulating maritime pollution remains complicated because of its inherently transnational nature. Shipping is generally governed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which regulates maritime pollution through the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). States are responsible for implementing and enforcing MARPOL among their own fleets to curb the most pernicious forms of maritime pollution, including oil spills, particulate matter such as sulfur oxide (SOx) and nitrous oxide (NOx), and greenhouse-gas emissions. Port cities bear the brunt of air pollution, which devastates local air quality because most ships burn bunker fuel (the dirtiest form of crude oil). The IMO’s Marine Environmental Protection Committee has also taken important steps to reduce SOx and NOx emissions by amending the MARPOL guidelines to reduce particulate matter from ships.

The IMO has been notably successful in reducing the amount of oil spilled into the marine environment. Despite a boom in global shipping, oil spills are at an all-time low. The IMO should strive to replicate this success in its efforts to reduce shipping emissions. Despite such efforts, a 2010 study [PDF] from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation found that international shipping still accounts for nearly 3 percent of all greenhouse gasses.

The IMO has achieved noteworthy success in reducing oil spilled into the marine environment. Despite a global shipping boom, oil spills are at an all-time low. The achievements of the IMO have been further strengthened by commitments by the Group of Eight to cooperate on oil pollution through an action plan that specifically targets pollution prevention for tankers. The IMO should strive to replicate this success in its efforts to reduce shipping emissions.

Climate change is also exacerbating environmental damage. In June 2009, global oceans reached their highest recorded average temperature: 17 degrees Celsius. As the world warms, oceans absorb increased levels of carbon dioxide, which acidifies the water and destroys wetlands, mangroves, and coral reefs—ecosystems that support millions of species of plants and animals. According to recent studies, ocean acidity could increase by more than 150 percent by 2050 if counteracting measures are not taken immediately. Moreover, melting ice raises sea levels, eroding beaches, flooding communities, and increasing the salinity of freshwater bodies. And the tiny island nation of the Maldives, the lowest country in the world, could be completely flooded if sea levels continue to rise at the same rate.

Individual states are responsible for managing changes in their own marine climates, but multilateral efforts to mitigate the effect of climate change on the oceans have picked up pace. In particular, the UNEP Regional Seas Program encourages countries sharing common bodies of water to coordinate and implement sound environmental policies, and promotes a regional approach to address climate change.

Sustainable fisheries policies on the high seas

Sustainable fisheries policies on the high seas: An ecological disaster

States have the legal right to regulate fishing in their exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which extend two hundred nautical miles from shore—and sometimes beyond that, in the case of extended continental shelves. But outside the EEZs are the high seas, which do not fall under any one country’s jurisdiction. Freedom of the high seas is critical to the free flow of global commerce, but spells disaster for international fisheries in a textbook case of the tragedy of the commons. For years, large-scale fishing vessels harvested fish as fast as possible with little regard for the environmental costs, destroying 90 percent of the ocean’s biomass in less than a century. Overall, fisheries suffer from two sets of challenges: ineffective enforcement capacity and lack of market-based governance solutions to remedy perverse incentives to overfish.

Although there are numerous international and multilateral mechanisms for fisheries management, the system is marred by critical gaps and weaknesses exploited by illegal fishing vessels. Articles 117 and 118 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) enumerate the specific fisheries responsibilities of state parties, placing the onus on national governments to form policies and regional agreements that ensure responsible management and conservation of fish stocks in their respective areas. UNCLOS was further strengthened by the UN Fish Stocks Agreement (FSA), which called for a precautionary approach toward highly migratory and straddling fish stocks that move freely in and out of the high seas. Seventy-eight countries have joined the FSA thus far, and a review conference in May 2010 was hailed as a success due to the passage of the Port State Measures (PSMs) to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Yet fish stocks have continued to stagnate or decline to dangerously low levels, and the PSMs have largely failed to prevent IUU operations.

Regional fishery bodies (RFBs) are charged with implementation and monitoring. The RFBs provide guidelines and advice on a variety of issues related to fishing, including total allowable catch, by-catch, vessel monitoring systems, areas or seasons closed for fishing, and recording and reporting fishery statistics. However, only a portion of these bodies oversee the management of their recommendations, and some RFBs allow members to unilaterally dismiss unfavorable decisions. Additionally, RFBs are not comprehensive in their membership and, for the most part, their rules do not apply to vessels belonging to a state outside the body.

Even when regional bodies make a binding decision on a high-seas case, implementation hinges on state will and capacity. In 2003, the UN General Assembly established a fund to assist developing countries with their obligations to implement the FSA through RFBs. The overall value of the fund remains small, however, and countries’ compliance is often constrained by resource scarcity. This results in spotty enforcement, which allows vessels to violate international standards with impunity, particularly off the coasts of weak states. Migratory species like blue fin tuna are especially vulnerable because they are not confined by jurisdictional boundaries and have high commercial value.

Some of the RFBs with management oversight, such as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources and the South East Atlantic Fisheries Organization, have been relatively effective in curbing overfishing. They have developed oversight systems and specific measures to target deep-water trawl fishing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in the high seas. Many regional cooperative arrangements, however, continue to suffer from weak regulatory authority. At the same time, some regions like the central and southwest Atlantic Ocean lack RFBs. Some have suggested filling the void with market-based solutions like catch shares, which could theoretically alter the incentives toward stewardship. Catch shares (also known as limited access privilege programs) reward innovation and help fisheries maximize efficiency by dedicating a stock of fish to an individual fisherman, community, fishery association, or an individual state. Each year before the beginning of fishing season, commercial fishermen would know how much fish they are allowed to catch. They would then be allowed to buy and sell shares to maximize profit. By incorporating free-market principles, fisheries could reach a natural equilibrium at a sustainable level. According to research, more sustainable catch shares policies could increase the value of the fishing industry by more than $36 billion. Although allocating the shares at the domestic—much less international—level remains problematic, the idea reflects of the kind of policy work required to better manage the global commons.

Managing the Arctic

Managing the Arctic: At a crossroads

Arctic ice is melting at unprecedented rates. At this pace, experts estimate that the Arctic could be seasonally ice free as early as 2040, and possibly much earlier. As the ice recedes and exposes valuable new resources, multilateral coordination and observation [PDF] will become even more important among states (and indigenous groups) jockeying for position in the region.

The melting ice is opening up potentially lucrative new sea routes and stores of natural resources. Since September 2009, cargo ships have been able to traverse the fabled Northwest and Northeast Passages, which are significantly shorter than traditional routes around the capes or through the canals. Widening sea routes also means that fishing fleets can travel north in search of virgin fishing stock, and that cruise ships can carry tourists chasing a last glimpse of the disappearing ice. At the same time, untapped resources such as oil, natural gas, rare earth minerals, and massive renewable wind, tidal, and geothermal energy hold enormous potential. In a preliminary estimate, the U.S. Geographic Society said that the Arctic Circle may hold 22 percent of the world’s hydrocarbon resources, including 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Beyond oil and gas, the Arctic may hold valuable commodities such as zinc, nickel, and coal.

But new opportunities in the Arctic also portend new competition among states. In August 2007, Russia symbolically planted a flag on the Arctic floor, staking a claim to large chunks of Arctic land. Other Arctic powers, including the United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark, have also laid claims. The European Union crafted a new Arctic policy, and China sent an icebreaker on three separate Arctic expeditions. Each country stands poised to grab new treasure in this increasingly important geostrategic region.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a solid foundation on which to build and coordinate national Arctic policies, especially articles 76 and 234, which govern the limits of the outer continental shelf (OCS) and regulate activities in ice-covered waters, respectively. However, there remains a formidable list of nagging sovereignty disputes that will require creative bilateral and multilateral resolutions. The Arctic Council, a multilateral forum comprising eight Arctic nations, has recently grown in international prominence, signing a legally binding treaty on search and rescue missions in May 2011 and drawing top level policymakers to its meetings. While these are significant first steps, the forum has yet to address other issues such as overlapping OCS claims, contested maritime boundaries, and the legal status of the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route.

U.S. and International Oceans Policy Issues


The United States championed many of the most important international maritime organizations over the past fifty years. It helped shape the decades-long process of negotiating the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and has played a leading role in many UNCLOS-related bodies, including the International Maritime Organization. It has also served as a driving force behind regional fisheries organizations and Coast Guard forums. Domestically, the United States has intermittently been at the vanguard of ocean policy, such as the 1969 Stratton Commission report, subsequent conservation acts in the 1970s, the recent Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, and, most recently, catch limits on all federally-managed fish species. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Monterrey Bay Research Institute have long been leaders in marine science. And from a geopolitical perspective, the U.S. Navy secures the world’s oceans and fosters a peaceful environment where global commerce can thrive.

Yet the United States lags behind on important issues, most notably regarding its reluctance to ratify UNCLOS. And until recently, the United States did not have a coherent national oceans policy. To address this gap, U.S. president Barack Obama created the Ocean Policy Task Force in 2009 to coordinate maritime issues across local, state, and federal levels, and to provide a strategic vision for how oceans should be managed in the United States. The task force led to the creation of a National Ocean Council, responsible for "developing strategic action plans to achieve nine priority objectives that address some of the most pressing challenges facing the ocean, our coasts, and Great Lakes." Although it has yet to make serious gains [PDF], this comprehensive oceans policy framework could help clear the way for the spadework of coordinating U.S. ocean governance and harmonizing international efforts.

Law of the Sea ratification

Should the United States ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea

Yes: The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which created the governance framework that manages nearly three-quarters of the earth’s surface, has been signed and ratified by 166 countries and the European Union. But the United States remains among only a handful of countries to have signed but not yet ratified the treaty—even though it already treats many of the provisions as customary international law. Leaders on both sides of the political aisle as well as environmental, conservation, business, industry, and security groups have endorsed ratification in order to preserve national security interests and reap its myriad benefits, such as securing rights for U.S. commercial and naval ships and boosting the competitiveness of U.S. companies in seafaring activities. Notably, all of the uniformed services—and especially the U.S. Navy—strongly support UNCLOS because its provisions would only serve to strengthen U.S. military efforts. By remaining a nonparty, the United States lacks the credibility to promote its own interests in critical decision-making forums as well as bring complaints to an international dispute resolution body.

No: Opponents argue that ratifying the treaty would cede sovereignty to an ineffective United Nations and constrain U.S. military and commercial activities. In particular, critics object to specific provisions including taxes on activities on outer continental shelves; binding dispute settlements; judicial activism by the Law of the Sea Tribunal, especially with regard to land-based sources of pollution; and the perceived ability of UNCLOS to curtail U.S. intelligence-gathering activities. Lastly, critics contend that because UNCLOS is already treated as customary international law, the United States has little to gain from formal accession.

Expanding the Container Security Initiative

Should the United States lead an initiative to expand the Container Security Initiative globally?

Yes: Some experts say the only way to secure a global economic system is to implement a global security solution. The U.S.-led Container Security Initiative (CSI) helps ensure that high-risk containers are identified and isolated before they reach their destination. Fifty-eight countries are already on board with the initiative, and many others have expressed interest in modeling their own security measures on the CSI. The World Customs Organization called on its members to develop programs based on the CSI, and the European Union agreed to expand the initiative across its territory. With its robust operational experience, the United States is well positioned to provide the technical expertise to ensure the integrity of the container system.

No: Opponents maintain that the United States can hardly commit its tax dollars abroad for a global security system when it has failed to secure its own imports. To date, more than $800 million and considerable diplomatic energy has been invested in CSI to expand the program to fifty-eight international ports, where agents are stationed to screen high-risk containers. Given the scale of world trade, the United States imports more than 10 million containers annually, and only a handful of high-risk boxes can be targeted for inspection. After huge expenditures and years of hard work to expand this program after September 11, 2001, only about 86 percent of the cargo that enters the United States transits through foreign ports covered under CSI, and of that, only about 1 percent is actually inspected (at a cost to the U.S. taxpayer of more than $1,000 per container). Despite congressional mandates to screen all incoming containers, critics say that costs make implementing this mandate virtually impossible. The limited resources the United States has available, they argue, should be invested in protecting imports bound specifically for its shores.

Decline in global fisheries

Should the United States be doing more to address the drastic decline in the world’s fisheries?

Yes: Advocates say that the further demise of global fish stocks, beyond being a moral burden, undermines the commerical and national security interests of the United States. Depleting fish stocks are driven in large part by the prevalence of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and the overcapitalization of the global commercial fishing fleet from domestic subsidies. To protect domestic commercial fisheries and the competitiveness of U.S. exports in the international seafood market, the United States should enhance efforts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to manage, enforce, and coordinate technical assistance for nations engaging in IUU fishing.

Domestically, the United States has taken important steps to address the critical gaps in fisheries management. In 2012, it became the first country to impose catch limits on all federally-managed fish species. Some species like the mahi mahi will be restricted for the first time in history. Many environmental experts hailed the move as a potential model for broader regional and international sustainable fisheries policy. To capitalize on such gains, the United States should aggressively work to reduce fishing subsidies in areas such as Europe that promote overcapitalization and thus global depletion of fish stocks. The United States could also promote market-based mechanisms, like catch shares and limited access privilege programs, to help fishermen and their communities curb overfishing and raise the value of global fisheries by up to $36 billion.

No: Critics argue that fisheries management is by and large a domestic issue, and that the United States has little right to tell other nations how to manage their own resources, particularly when such measures could harm local economies. They contend that the science behind overfishing is exaggerated, as are the warnings about the consequences of an anticipated fisheries collapse. Existing conventions like the 1995 Fish Stock Agreement already go far enough in addressing this issue. Any additional efforts, they contend, would be a diplomatic overreach, as well as an excessive burden on a struggling commercial fishing industry. Critics also question how market-based mechanisms, such as catch-shares, would be distributed, traded, and enforced, warning that they would lead to speculative bubbles.

The melting Arctic

Should the United States push for a more comprehensive multilateral strategy to cope with the melting Arctic?

Yes: The melting Arctic holds important untapped political, strategic, and economic potential for the U.S. government, military, and businesses. This emerging frontier could potentially support a variety of economic activities, including energy exploration, marine commerce, and sustainable development of new fisheries. Countries such as Russia, Canada, Norway, and China have already made claims to the region, yet the United States remains on the sideline without a comprehensive Arctic strategy. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea remains the premier forum of negotiating and arbitrating disputes over contested territory. As a nonparty, however, the United States loses invaluable leverage and position. In addition, the U.S. military does not have a single icebreaker, whereas Russia operates over thirty. Experts argue that the U.S. government should also adopt the recently proposed Polar Code, which is a voluntary agreement that "sets structural classifications and standards for ships operating in the Arctic as well as specific navigation and emergency training for those operating in or around ice-covered waters."

No: Opponents argue that Arctic Council activities and the 2009 National Security Presidential Directive and Homeland Security Presidential Directive, which updated U.S. Arctic policies, are sufficient. Any collaboration with Canada to resolve disputes over the Northwest Passage might undermine freedom of navigation for U.S. naval assets elsewhere, especially in the Strait of Hormuz and the Taiwan Straits, and this national security concern trumps any advantages from collaborating on security, economic, or environmental issues in the Arctic. Last, given the dominant Russian and Canadian Arctic coastlines, future Arctic diplomacy might best be handled bilaterally rather than through broader multilateral initiatives.

Recent Developments

New Chinese claims in South China Sea

January 2014 

On January 1, China imposed new restrictions on foreign fishing vessels entering disputed portions of the South China Sea. The move angered China’s neighbors Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the Philippines and drew criticism from the United States, where a U.S. State Department spokeswoman called the act “provocative and potentially dangerous.” Japan’s defense minister claimed that China was “unilaterally threatening the existing international order,” especially in light of China’s unilateral declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea in November 2013. In recent months tensions have increased throughout the East and South China Seas, as China, Japan, and others claim sovereignty over disputed territories, such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Ship trapped in Antarctica

December 2013

An international rescue operation commenced in late December 2013 after the Russian vessel Akademik Shokalskiy became trapped in ice while conducting research off the coast of Antarctica. The Chinese icebreaker Xue Long was dispatched to break free the Russian ship. Some passengers were transported to the Xue Long via helicopter, the Xue Long itself became stuck in ice. An Australian vessel then came to their assistance, transporting the rescued crew and passengers to Australia, while a U.S. Coast Guard cutter arrived to break free the Russian and Chinese vessels. While the incident demonstrated a high degree of international cooperation, it also served as a reminder that regulation of vessels in the Antarctic remains weak and many of these vessels are unfit for such harsh environmental conditions.


New global fishing rules

May 2013

Two new restrictions related to the trade in fish occurred in early 2013, demonstrating a growing effort to preserve marine life. In March, delegates attending the annual meeting on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) voted to place robust export restrictions on five species of sharks and two species of manta rays. Although experts cautioned that the new rules would be difficult to enforce in practice, the decision marked an important victory over economic interests, particularly of China and Japan. In May, the European Parliament agreed to a sustainable fisheries policy that sets fishing limits to a level that would allow depleted stocks to recover and bans the practice of throwing back fish of unwanted species or size Additionally, in June, the European Union agreed to close loopholes on current restrictions on the practice of finning sharks.

Japan joins TPP talks

April 2013

Japan agreed to join negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious free trade agreement between counties along the Pacific rim. Since the broad outline of the agreement was introduced in November 2011, sixteen rounds of negotiations have thus far brought eleven countries together to discuss the TPP. The addition of Japan, a major economic force in the region, as the twelfth participant comes as an important step in creating a robust agreement. Already, the South China Sea is the second-busiest shipping lane in the world, and should the TTP become a reality, transpacific shipping would dramatically increase. The current goal for agreement is October 2013.

IMO support for new piracy framework

March 2013

At a ministerial meeting in Cotonou, Benin, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) pledged to support the implementation of a new code of conduct on piracy and other illicit maritime activity. The Gulf of Guinea Code of Conduct, drafted by the Economic Community of Central African States and the Economic Community of West African States, in partnership with the IMO, contains provisions for interdicting sea- and land-based vehicles engaged in illegal activities at sea, prosecuting suspected criminals, and sharing information between state parties. The code builds on several existing frameworks to create a sub-regional coast guard.

Philippines challenges Chinese claims to South China Sea

January 2013

The Philippine government announced its intention to take China to an international arbitration tribunal based on claims that China violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The dispute dates back to mid-2012, when the Philippines claimed that Chinese vessels were fishing illegally in the Scarborough shoal. The dispute was further exacerbated by joint military exercises conducted by the United States and the Philippines, which reportedly included mock beach invasions.

China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines have competing territorial and jurisdictional claims to the South China Sea, particularly over rights to exploit its potentially vast oil and gas reserves. Control over strategic shipping lanes and freedom of navigation are also increasingly contested, especially between the United States and China.

Options for Strengthening Ocean Governance


There are a series of measures, both formal and informal, that can be taken to strengthen U.S. and global ocean governance. First, the United States must begin by finally ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. On this foundation, the United States should then tap hitherto underused regimes, update twentieth-century agreements to reflect modern ocean challenges, and, in some cases, serve as the diplomatic lead in pioneering new institutions and regimes.

These recommendations reflect the views of Stewart M. Patrick, senior fellow and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program, and Scott G. Borgerson, former visiting fellow for ocean governance.


The United States should ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as soon as possible

The United States should finally join the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an action that would give it further credibility and make the United States a full partner in global ocean governance. This carefully negotiated agreement has been signed and ratified by 166 countries and the European Union. Yet despite playing a central role shaping UNCLOS’s content, the United States has conspicuously failed to join. It remains among only a handful of countries with a coastline, including Syria, North Korea, and Iran, not to have done so.

Emerging issues such as the melting Arctic lend increased urgency to U.S. ratification. By rejecting UNCLOS, the United States is freezing itself out of important international policymaking bodies, forfeiting a seat at decision-making forums critical to economic growth and national security interests. One important forum where the United States has no say is the commission vested with the authority to validate countries’ claims to extend their exclusive economic zones, a process that is arguably the last great partitioning of sovereign space on earth. As a nonparty to the treaty, the United States is forgoing an opportunity to extend its national jurisdiction over a vast ocean area on its Arctic, Atlantic, and Gulf coasts—equal to almost half the size of the Louisiana Purchase—and abdicating an opportunity to have a say in deliberations over other nations’ claims elsewhere.

Furthermore, the convention allows for an expansion of U.S. sovereignty by extending U.S. sea borders, guaranteeing the freedom of ship and air traffic, and enhancing the legal tools available to combat piracy and illicit trafficking. Potential participants in U.S.-organized flotillas and coalitions rightly question why they should assist the United States in enforcing the rule of law when the United States refuses to recognize the convention that guides the actions of virtually every other nation.

Coordinate national ocean policies

Coordinate national ocean policies for coastal states

The creation of a comprehensive and integrated U.S. oceans policy should be immediately followed by similar efforts in developing maritime countries, namely, Brazil, Russia, India, and China (BRIC). These so-called BRIC nations will be critical players in crafting domestic ocean policies that form a coherent tapestry of global governance. Ideally, such emerging powers would designate a senior government official, and in some cases the head of state, to liaison with other coastal states and regional bodies to coordinate ocean governance regimes. Consistent with the Regional Seas Program, the ripest opportunity for these efforts is at the regional level. With UN assistance, successful regional initiatives could then be harmonized and expanded globally.

Limit fishing of endangered species

Place a moratorium on critically endangered commercial fisheries

Commercial fishing, a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States, is in grave danger. The oceans have been overfished, and it is feared that many fish stocks may not rebound. In the last fifty years, fish that were previously considered inexhaustible have been reduced to alarmingly low levels. Up to 90 percent of large predatory fish are now gone. Nearly half of fish stocks in the world have been fully exploited and roughly one-third have been overexploited. The recent imposition of catch limits on all federally-managed fish species is an important and long overdue first step, which should be expanded and strengthened to a moratorium on the most endangered commercial fisheries, such as the Atlantic blue fin tuna. But tuna is hardly alone in this predicament, and numerous other species are facing the same fate. Policymakers should stand up to intense political pressure and place fishing moratoriums on the most threatened fisheries to give them a chance to rebound. Doing so would be a courageous act that would help rescue collapsing fish while creating a commercially sustainable resource.

In the longer term, the United States and its international partners should consider the following steps:

Strengthen UNCLOS

Strengthen and update UNCLOS

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and related agreements serve as the bedrock of international ocean policy. However, UNCLOS is thirty years old. If it is to remain relevant and effective, it must be strengthened and updated to respond to emerging threats such as transnational crime and marine pollution, as well as employing market-based principles of catch shares to commercial fisheries, especially in the high seas. Lastly, UNCLOS Article 234, which applies to ice-covered areas, should be expanded to better manage the opening Arctic, which will be an area of increasing focus and international tension over the coming years.

The international community should also counter the pressure of coastal states that unilaterally seek to push maritime borders seaward, as illustrated by China’s claim to all of the South China Sea. Additionally, states should focus on using UNCLOS mechanisms to resolve nagging maritime conflicts, such as overlapping exclusive economic zones from extended continental shelf claims, and sovereignty disputes, such as that of the Spratly and Hans Islands.

Bolster enforcement

Bolster enforcement capacity

Many ocean-related governance issues have shortcomings not because rules for better management do not exist, but because weak states cannot enforce them. A failure in the oversight of sovereign waters inevitably leads to environmental degradation and, in cases like Somalia, can morph into problems with global implications, such as piracy. Accordingly, the international community should help less developed coastal states build the capacity to enforce (1) fisheries rules fleets; (2) International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution From Ships regulations to reduce ocean dumping and pollution; (3) other shipping regulations in states with open registries such as Liberia, Panama, Malta, and the Marshall Islands; (4) and existing mandates created to stop illicit trafficking. Developed countries should also help less developed areas monitor environmental variables such as acidification, coral reefs, and fisheries.

Conventions and Core Agreements



For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage (Bunker Convention) (2008)

Provides legal framework for compensation to victims of oil-pollution damage resulting from oil spills when carried as fuel in non-tanker vessels.

Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (2004)

Establishes legal framework for dealing with trafficking of migrants. Applies to preventing, investigating, and prosecuting crimes of smuggling migrants, producing fake documents to enable smuggling migrants, organizing others to smuggle migrants, creating aggravating circumstances such as inhuman or degrading treatment, and endangering the lives of migrants.

International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS) (2004)

Describes minimum security requirements for ships and ports. Objectives are to detect threats and implement proper security measures, to establish clear roles and responsibilities for national and local governments and private sector, to coordinate distribution of security information, and to provide methodology for reacting to security threats.

Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons to the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime (TIP Protocol) (2003)

Establishes legal framework for dealing with human trafficking. Emphasizes prevention of trafficking, protecting victims of trafficking, and promoting cooperation among states on prevention and enforcement. Addresses repatriation and refugee issues related to human trafficking, information sharing, and border control.

International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage Protocol (CLC) (1996) and the Oil Pollution Compensation Fund Convention (Fund Convention) (1996)

CLC provides legal framework for compensation to victims of oil-pollution damage resulting from maritime incidents involving oil-carrying vessels.

Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA) (1992)

Aims to prevent unlawful acts at sea by ensuring appropriate action is taken against persons who threaten the security of marine vessels and the safety of passengers and crew.

Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims (LLMC) (1986)

Establishes legal limit of liability for maritime claims, specifically, claims for loss of life or personal injury and property claims.

International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (1985)

Provides plan for international coordination of search and rescue operations (SAR) at sea. Encourages states to create regional SAR agreements, coordinating centers, and emergency search and rescue plans. World's oceans divided into thirteen SAR regions, each with its own SAR plan outlining specific responsibilities to states in each area.

International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) (1984, amended in 1995 and 2010)

Establishes basic requirements on training, certification, and watchkeeping for seafarers (previously created by individual states and not coordinated on an international level). Established under International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Paris Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Port State Control (1982)

Member countries agree to inspect 25 percent of ships entering their ports for compliance under eight international maritime conventions.

International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) (1980)

Aims to provide safety standards for ship construction, equipment, and operation. Includes provisions concerning stability, machinery, electrical installations, fire detection, life-saving appliances, navigation and maritime safety, security, and cargo, among others.

Convention on the International Maritime Satellite Organization (1979)

Establishes public-private partnership with Inmarsat, Ltd. to improve maritime communications and thereby improve distress and safety communications at sea, the efficiency of ships, and radio determination capabilities.

International Convention for Safe Containers (1977)

Framework for regulating the safety of freight containers. Aims to maintain safety in handling transport containers by providing strength procedures and test requirements. Provides uniform international safety regulations. Applies to most freight containers, aside from those designed to be shipped by air.

Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs) (1977)

Establishes international rules governing traffic at sea. Addresses steering, speed, right-of way, collisions, sound, light and distress signals, and other navigation considerations.

International Convention Relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties (1975)

Affirms the rights of states to take measures on the high seas to prevent danger to their coastline or other interests due to oil pollution, oil spills, or the threat thereof.

International Convention on Load Lines (1968)

Provides international safety guidelines for determining load lines (maximum loads of ships, marked by a line at the hull) that take into account varying ocean conditions and water salinities across regions and seasons.

Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests In The Atmosphere, In Outer Space And Under Water (Seabed Treaty) (1963)

Prohibits parties from placing on the seabed and ocean floor (beyond twelve-mile coastal zone) any nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, as well as structures or facilities to launch or test such weapons.

Agreement to Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing (2009)

ommits state parties to deny entry to its ports to vessels that engage in illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing (IUU). Provides frameworks for tracking, investigation, and reporting of such vessels.

Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (adopted 2009)

Aims to ensure that ship recycling does not harm the environment or threaten human safety. Provides international regulations on the disposal and recycling of ships and ship parts. Includes guidelines on design and operation of ships, to facilitate recycling.

Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (2004)

Provides a framework to eliminate or reduce production and use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), defined as substances that persist or accumulate in the environment and pose a risk to human health and the environment. Parties agreed to outlaw nine POPs, limit use of DDT in malaria control, and attempt to prevent inadvertent production of dioxins and furans.

International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments (adopted 2004)

Ballast water management regime that protects marine environment from foreign invasive aquatic species.

Marine Environment and Tanker Safety: A G8 Action Plan (2003)

Commitment to ratify and implement UN conventions on maritime safety and security and to take measures to cooperate on security and environmental protection, including fisheries and pollution.

International Convention on Salvage (1996)

Provides rewards to salvor for preventing environmental damage, regardless of whether the salvage was successful. Introduced a special compensation for salvors that prevent damage.

International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in Connection with the Carriage of Hazardous and Noxious Substances by Sea (HNS Convention) (adopted 1996)

Provides legal framework for compensation of loss or damage to persons, property, and the environment arising from the carriage of some 6,500 hazardous and noxious substances (HNS) by sea.  Substances include chemicals, non-persistent petroleum products, liquefied natural gas, and liquefied petroleum gas.

International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response, and Cooperation (1995)

Established global framework for cooperation to combat oil pollution in marine environment. Requires parties to establish measures to deal with incidents of pollution and to stockpile equipment for combating oil spills.

United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) (1993) and Nagoya Protocol (2010)

Provides a framework to preserve biodiversity and use natural resources sustainably. Covers marine biological diversity, including mandating the development of national strategies, programs, and plans for marine conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity. The 2010 protocol aims to cut the current extinction rate by at least half by 2020, and increase the amount of protected oceans from current levels (less than 1 percent) to 10 percent.

Agenda 21 (1992)

Establishes a comprehensive action plan for organizations, governments, and major groups for sustainable development in the twenty-first century. Provides recommendations in three main areas: social and economic dimensions; conservation and management of resources; and strengthening role of major groups.

Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes (1992)

Sets legal framework to reduce transfer of waste, especially hazardous waste (does not include radioactive waste), from developed to developing countries. Sets limits on import and export of hazardous waste. Requires countries to provide notice for and track movement of waste across national borders. Prohibits parties from transferring waste to nonparties.

United Nations Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention) (1983)

Protects migratory species by prohibiting activities that have adverse effect on threatened and endangered species and encouraging agreements on protection of all such migratory species. Provides general principles and institutions to create regional agreements or species-specific agreements.

International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) (1983)

Establishes main legal framework for regulating pollution by operational or accidental causes. Covers oil, chemicals, air pollution, garbage, sewage and other harmful substances transported by shipping.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) (1975)

rotects animals and plants from over-exploitation and possible extinction through international trade.  Ensures the sustainability and biological diversity of these resources for the future.

Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (1975)

Prohibits dumping certain hazardous materials, requires special permit for dumping other materials, and prior permit for yet other matters. Does not apply to wastes derived from exploration or exploitation of seabed minerals or those dumped in an emergency. Established under International Maritime Organization.




For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

Global Forum on Oceans, Coasts, and Islands (2002)

Advances the interests of oceans by fostering cross-sectoral dialogue. Raises awareness of oceanic issues and coordinates government and nongovernment actor activities on ocean policy--especially the Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development and Agenda 21.

Oceana (2001)

Campaigns to protect and restore oceans and marine life. Goals include protecting the Arctic, promoting safe and healthy fishing practices, protecting sharks, bluefin tuna, and sea turtles, and reducing mercury pollution and seafood contamination.

Census of Marine Life (2000)

Ten year initiative that registers all marine life.

Global Program of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities (GPA) (1995)

Assists states to reduce or eliminate marine degradation from land-based activities.

SeaWeb (1995)

Promotes ocean conservation by raising public awareness and crafting innovative policy solutions to environmental challenges.

International Coral Reef Initative (ICRI) (1994)

Gathers state, civil society and multilateral institutions to ensure protection, conservation, and sustainable use of coral reefs and associated ecosystems by implementing Chapter 17 of Agenda 21.

Pew Oceans Commission (1990)

Preserve marine ecosystems, strengthen environmental protection policies, and raise awareness of pressing threats and issues.

Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) (1989)

UN-sponsored system that coordinates international ocean observing and information delivery services. It describes and forecasts the state of  oceans and works to improve environmental management and enable scientific research.

Conservation International (1987)

Promotes a more sustainable approach to development through partnerships with governments, businesses, and communities. Works with corporations to develop sustainability guidelines and understand their impact on oceans. Advises policymakers on trade-offs between development and health of oceans.

UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Regional Seas Program (1974)

Provides international oversight for creation of regional action plans for sustainable management of ocean resources. Plans include region-specific actions for combating marine pollution, overfishing, climate change, and other dangers to the world's oceans, as well as overall commitments to marine conservation and sustainable development.

Ocean Conservancy (1972)

Aims to promote health of ocean ecosystems and oppose policies that threaten oceanic life and marine environment. Some goals include restoring U.S. fisheries, protecting ocean wildlife from human impact, conserving "special ocean places," and promoting better ocean stewardship.

International Ocean Institute (IOI) (1972)

Works to ensure sustainability of ocean and uphold UN Convention on the Law of the Sea principle of the ocean as a common heritage of mankind.

Greenpeace (1971)

Promotes awareness on whale slaughter, pollution, fisheries, and coastal communities' way of life by bearing witness and promoting education.

National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) (1970)

Promotes conservation of the natural and built environment, working against urban sprawl, pollution, and habitat destruction, preventing global warming, and promoting the use of alternative energy.

Environmental Defense Fund (1967)

Aims to tackle pressing environmental issues through scientific research, economic incentives, corporate partnerships, and policy recommendations. Ocean Program focuses on promoting sustainable fisheries and protecting the ocean habitat.

World Wildlife Fund (1961)

Works to protect natural areas and wild populations of plants and animals, and promote the use of renewable and sustainable resources, and pollution reduction.

Nature Conservancy (1951)

Works to conserve marine life and benefit coastal economies and local communities through science, market-based strategies, restoration and conservation, and development of new technology.

International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (1948)

First global environmental organization to promote preservation and sustainable development.

National Ocean Council (2010)

Focuses on nine national priority objectives to address challenges facing oceans, coasts, and bodies of water in and around the United States. Aims to provide a more coordinated, integrated, and comprehensive U.S. national ocean strategy and policy framework.

World Shipping Council (2000)

Industry organization representing international container ship operators.

European Sea Ports Organisation (ESPO) (1993)

Represents EU seaports to ensure that they have a voice in policy formation.

Oil Companies International Marine Forum (1970)

Promotes safety and pollution prevention from tankers and at oil terminals. Coordinates oil industry voice and reviews technical proposals distributed by International Maritime Organization.

International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (Intertanko) (1970)

Promotes safe shipping of fossil fuels and chemicals.

International Association of Classification Societies (1968)

Brings together national classification groups that maintain shipping standards and ensures compliance to standards.

American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) (1912)

Advancing the interests of and connecting leading ports in the United States, Canada, and Latin America and the Carribean.

International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) (1921) and International Shipping Federation (ISF) (1909)

ICS is leading international trade association for shipping industry. ISF is primary international employer's organization for shipowners.

Baltic and International Maritime Council

Baltic Exchange (circa 1744)

Provides independent maritime market information and sets standards for maritime business conduct.

Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 (2009)

International task force to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden and to secure broader global maritime security.

Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) (2003)

Forum for sharing best practices, building capacity, and improving interoperability to heighten success in interdiction efforts aimed at combatting trafficking in weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-related material. Focuses on intelligence-sharing and interdiction by land, sea, and air. Activities aimed at compelling compliance with Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 and at combating violators.

Countainer Security Initiative (CSI) (2002)

Aims to identify and inspect all shipments to United States that pose risk for terrorism before they leave foreign ports.

International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) (1968)

Implements UN drug control policies as a quasi-judicial monitoring body. Ensures that drugs are adequately available for medicine and science, without diversion into illegal uses. Assesses international and national drug control regimes and identifies gaps and weaknesses.

International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) (1958)

Safeguards submarine cables against natural and man-made hazards.

Organizations and Institutions



For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

UN-Oceans (2003)

Coordinates UN activities on oceans and coastal areas. Replaces Subcommittee on Oceans and Coastal Areas of the Administrative Committee on Coordination created in response to Agenda 21 in 1993, but terminated in 2001 when UN moved away from permanent subsidiary bodies to more ad hoc, time-bound, and task-oriented coordination arrangements.

UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (1997)

UN's main agency in fight against transnational threats including drug trafficking, organized crime, terrorism, and human trafficking. Engaged in maritime security issues such as countering piracy and illicit transfer of drugs and humans by sea.

International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) (1996) and ITLOS Trust Fund (2000)

Tribunal provides settlement of disputes arising from implementation of UNCLOS. Trust Fund provides funding to assist developing states in settling disputes through tribunal.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (1988)

Scientific body of experts that studies and reports on climate change and its consequences, including the impact of climate change on oceans, as well as oceanographic indicators of climate change. Provides rigorous and balanced scientific information to policymakers while maintaining a policy-neutral stance.

Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) (1980)

Helps implement UNCLOS provisions relevant to establishing outer limits of continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles of territorial base.

UN Environment Programme (UNEP) (1972)

Lead UN body for environmental issues. Manages UNEP Regional Seas Program which engages neighboring countries in sustainably managing oceans and coastal areas.

UN Development Programme (UNDP) (1965)

Principal development arm of UN. Supports efforts to strengthen water governance and promotes sustainable development and poverty alleviation.

International Oceanographic Commission (IOC) (1960)

Promotes effective oceans governance by coordinating capacity building to strengthen oceans management and marine science capabilities. Conducts research on ocean resources and coastal areas.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (1957)

Authoritative agency on nuclear issues. Promotes multilateral cooperation on nuclear activities in three areas: safety and security (including control of radioactive waste disposal to the marine environment), science and technology, and safeguards and verification.

World Meteorological Organization (WMO) (1951)

Provides expertise on earth's meteorological trends, including the interaction of weather patterns with oceans and the atmosphere. Coordinates activities related to weather, climate, hydrology, and water resources.

Office of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) (1950)

Mandated to coordinate action to protect refugee rights and well-being, which includes maritime incidents such as rescue at sea and maritime interception or stowaway cases. Developed recommendations in 2005 on how companies and states can save refugees at sea.

International Maritime Organization (IMO) (1948)

Develops and maintains a global regulatory framework for shipping that includes setting environmental, technical, and safety norms and standards.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (1945)

Preeminent UN agency on food and nutrition. Works toward securing sustainable development of fisheries and aquaculture. Leads efforts to develop arrangements to promote sustainable development of fisheries. Promotes collaboration and cooperation among regional fishery organizations (RFOs) and maintains a comprehensive database of RFOs.

United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) (1945)

Overarching UN organ on oceans affairs, responsible for raising concerns on oceans and law of the sea. Usually adopts two oceans resolutions every year, one on sustainable fisheries and one on law of the sea.

United Nations Secretariat (1945)

Houses Division for Oceans Affairs and Law of the Sea (DOALAS), secretariat for law of the sea.

International Labor Organization (ILO) (1919)

Flagship UN organization on labor issues dedicated to improving working conditions and advancing employment opportunities.

International Seabed Authority (ISA) (1994)

Established to oversee implementation of Part XI of UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Provides a way for nations to coordinate and control mineral resources-related activities on the seabed, ocean floor, and subsoil that take place outside national boundaries.

International Mobile Satellite Organization (IMSO) (1979)

Oversees provision of maritime mobile satellite services for the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), and security communication services on distress alerting, search and rescue operations, and maritime safety information. Coordinates long range identification and tracking of ships.

International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) (1923)

International police organization that supports cooperation between states on crime and other transnational security threats. Has been engaged on issues related to piracy, terrorism, and maritime trafficking.

International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) (1921)

Provides support for navigation safety and protection of marine environment through coordinating activities of national hydrographic bureaus and promoting standards and efficiency in designing nautical maps and surveys.

Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia Information Sharing Center (ISC) (2004)

Intergovernmental body that oversees cooperation to combat sea piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia. Underpinned by Regional Cooperation Agreement (PDF) on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).

>Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) (1997)

Cooperative body that formally facilitates the traditional exchange of information relating to trading and investment in the Indian Ocean.

Arctic Council (1996)

Monitors threats to the Arctic environment; provides information, research, and technical assistance to member states, and deals with prevention, preparedness and response to environmental emergencies.

European Union (EU) (1992)

European economic and political union. Established a comprehensive Integrated Maritime Policy that aims to integrate maritime governance in the region. Recently adopted a Marine Strategy Framework Directive to protect marine ecosystem.

Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) (1981)

Promotes economic integration and facilitates sustainable development policies.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) (1975)

Deals with security in Europe in three main areas: politico-military, economic and environmental, and human. The Office of the Coordinator of OSCE Economic and Environmental Activities has a program on Water, Security, and Cooperation and runs an initiative that coordinates regional action on environmental issues.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (1967)

Promotes economic growth, social progress, and cultural development and promote regional peace and stability. Working Group on Coastal and Marine Environment promotes cooperation on conservation and disaster preparedness.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (1949)

Based on principle of collective defense agreed to in North Atlantic Treaty. Operation Ocean Shield a major effort to combat piracy in Gulf of Aden.

Council of Europe (1949)

Aims to create a "common democratic and legal area" throughout Europe, with shared values regarding human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Has been active in maritime security and advancing a new governance regime for oceans.

Regional Fisheries Conventions and Bodies



For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

Convention on the Conservation and Management of High Seas Fishery Resources in the South Pacific Ocean (2009)

Established South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization to promote responsible and transparent fisheries management, develop coordination among state parties to ensure sustainable use of marine ecosystems in the South Pacific.

Multilateral High-Level Convention of the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (2004)

Establishes The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission to conserve and manage migratory fishery resources in Western and Central Pacific Ocean, focusing on using resources in a sustainable way and monitoring and conserving fish stocks.

South West Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission (SWIOFC) (2004)

Promotes sustainable use of living marine resources in the Southwest Indian Ocean. Addresses problems related to fisheries management and development.

Convention on the Conservation and Management of Fishery Resources in the South East Atlantic Ocean (2003)

Establishes South East Atlantic Fisheries Organization to oversee long-term conservation and sustainable use of fishery resources in Southeast Atlantic Ocean.

Regional Commission for Fisheries (RECOFI) (2001)

Promotes management and sustainable development of aquaculture in the Persian/Arabian Gulf region.

Convention on the Conservation and Management of Pollock Resources in the Central Bering Sea (1995)

Provides legal framework to promote sustainable management of Pollock resources in the Bering Sea. Result (PDF) of a 1988 resolution adopted unanimously urging United States to enter talks with Soviet Union with goal of reaching bilateral agreement to impose and enfoce a moratorium on Pollack fishing in an area referred to as the Donut Hole.

Convention for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT) (1994)

Creates Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna that aims to ensure conservation of global Southern Blue Tuna (SBT) by setting limits and regulatory measures, conducting scientific research, providing a forum for discussion, coordinating members' activities, and fostering activities to preserve related species.

Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) (1993)

Established by an agreement that gives the commission the authority to manage tuna and tuna-like species in the Indian Ocean. Promotes cooperation among members by encouraging conservation of fish stocks and sustainable development of fisheries. Mandated with monitoring fish stocks, conducting scientific research, coordinating research, development, and training, and adopting conservation and management measures.

North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO) (1992)

Promotes cooperation on the conservation, management and study of marine mammals in the North Atlantic Ocean. Provides forum for information exchange on conservation and management issues.

Convention for the Conservation of Anadromous Stocks in the North Pacific (1992)

Creates a North Pacific Anadromous Fisheries Commission to promote the conservation of anadromous stocks (salmon, trout) in the North Pacific Ocean by banning direct fishing for anadromous fish and minimizing the accidental taking of anadromous fish. Regulates scientific research on anadromous fish in the north Pacific.

Convention for the Conservation of Salmon in the North Atlantic Ocean (1983)

Established North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) and provides a legal framework for salmon fisheries in the north Atlantic. Prohibits fishing beyond the jurisdiction of member states and sets limits on fishing for all member states.

Convention on Future Multilateral Cooperation in the North East Atlantic Fisheries (1982)

Establishes legal regime for the conservation and sustainable use of fishing resources in Northeast Atlantic region. Creates the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC) to oversee management of fishing resources and encourage both multilateral cooperation and exchange of scientific information on the state of fishery resources and fishery management policies.

Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) (1982)

Creates the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to facilitate research on Antarctic marine life, compile data on factors affecting marine life, identify conservation needs and monitoring conservation measures, and formulate conservation measures, such as designating endangered species or setting quotas for consumption.

Convention on Future Multilateral Cooperation in the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries (1979)

Created the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO). Promotes cooperation, management, optimum use of fishery resources, and conservation of fishery resources in northwest Atlantic.

Western Central Atlantic Fishery Commission (WECAFC) (1973)

Facilitates coordination of research and encourages education and training to assist members in establishing policies that promote rational management of resources of interest to two or more countries in the western central Atlantic Ocean.

International Convention for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) (1969)

Established International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Responsible for research on tuna and tuna-like fish and making recommendations on tuna conservation measures.

Fishery Committee for the Eastern Central Atlantic (CECAF) (1967)

Promotes programs for rational use of fishery resources in the eastern central Atlantic between Cape Spartel and the Congo River. Assists in establishing fishing regulatory schemes.

General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) (1967)

Promotes cooperation in sustainable development, conservation, and management of living marine resources in the Mediterranean, Black Sea, and connecting waters.

Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) (1949)

Established under theConvention for the Creation of an Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (PDF), granting it the responsibility for conservation and management of fisheries for tunas and other species taken by tuna-fishing vessels in Eastern Pacific Ocean. Updated convention, the Convention for the Strengthening of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission ratified in 2008. Has responsibilities for International Dolphin Conservation Program.

Asia Pacific Fishery Commission (APFIC) (1948)

Promotes regional cooperation and a forum for consultation on fisheries and aquaculture in the Asia Pacific region. Focuses on fisheries management, sharing statistics and information, looking at ecosystem approaches to conservation, responding to emergencies and disasters, and implementing international fisheries policy.




For more information, including membership; mandate; gaps and weaknesses; implementation, compliance and enforcement; and U.S. policy stance, download the full report. 

UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (1994)

Principal regulatory framework for resources of the sea and use of oceans. Covers territorial sovereignty, navigation rights, economic rights, protection, and conservation of the marine environment, and marine scientific research.

Agreement Relating to the Implementation of Part XI (1996)

Addresses concerns regarding seabed mining provisions and establishes guidelines for procedural aspects of Part XI of the convention.

Agreement relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (2001)

Sets out principles for conservation and management of fish stocks and establishes that such management is based on precautionary approach and the best available scientific information.

Sovereignty: Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, UNCLOS Part II, Articles 2-31

Determines sovereignty over territorial sea up to twelve nautical miles from baseline. Determines right of coastal state to exercise control over contiguous zone up to twenty-four nautical miles from baseline.

Sovereignty: Archipelagic States, UNCLOS Part IV, Articles 46-54

Determines that sovereignty of archipelagic states extends to waters enclosed by its baseline and airspace above it. Provides guidelines for measuring baseline as well as archipelago's territorial zone, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf.

Sovereignty: Continental Shelf, UNCLOS Part VI, Articles 76-85

Determines that a coastal state has sovereign rights over its continental shelf, which may extend up to 350 nautical miles or more from baseline. Continental shelf defined as comprising seabed and subsoil of submarine areas that extend beyond territorial seas.

Sovereignty: High Seas, UNCLOS Part VII, Articles 86-115

Determines that no state has sovereignty over the high seas and that all states have certain freedoms including freedom of navigation and overflight, freedom to lay pipelines and submarine cables, freedom of scientific research, freedom of fishing, and freedom to construct artificial islands, as long as these activities are for peaceful purposes. All states required to assist persons in distress.

Navigation and Security: Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, UNCLOS Part II, Articles 2-33

Provides protection of essential navigation through the territorial seas, including the right of innocent passage. Provides right of visit and right of sovereign immunity for warships.

Navigation and Security: Straits Used for International Navigation, UNCLOS Part III, Articles 34-45

Determines rights of aircrafts and vessels to navigate through straits for transit and innocent passage. Transit passage provides the right to pass through international straits in their normal modes of continuous and expeditious transit. Innocent passage defined as not prejudicial to the peace, good order, or security of the coastal state.

Navigation and Security: Archipelagic States, UNCLOS Part IV, Articles 52-54

Provides protection of essential navigation through archipelagic waters, including rights of innocent passage and archipelagic sea lanes.

Navigation and Security: Continental Shelf, UNCLOS Part VI, Articles 76-85

All states are recognized to have a continental shelf extending as far as 200 nautical miles, subject to the limits of the shelves of bordering or opposing states. This may extend up to 350 nautical miles. Determines that all coastal states have sovereign rights for exploring and exploiting natural resources and laying pipelines and submarine cables in their continental shelf. Determines that all states have rights to lay submarine cables and pipelines on the continental shelf.

Navigation and Security: High Seas, UNCLOS Part VII, Articles 86-115

Determines that all states have freedom of navigation and overflight as well as the right to lay submarine cables in the high seas, as long as these activities are for peaceful purposes. Defines piracy and entrusts all states with the authority to seize a pirate vessel or aircraft. Grants warships and ships used on noncommercial governmental service immunity from laws governing high seas. Provides strict provisions on which warship crews can board other vessels. Allows a state to pursue ships believed in violation of its national laws.

Navigation and Security: Right of Access of Land-Locked States to and from the Sea and Freedom of Transit, UNCLOS Part X, Articles 124-132

Grants certain rights to landlocked states, including access to and from sea, freedom of transit, and equal treatment in ports.

Economic: Exclusive Economic Zone, UNCLOS Part V, Articles 55-75

Gives coastal states sovereignty over the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), defined as up to 200 nautical miles off national baselines, including the right to pursue economic exploration and exploitation of resources. Gives rights to landlocked states to participate equally in exploitation of the surplus of "living resources" in EEZs of coastal states through bilateral or multilateral agreements. If coastal state can harvest most or all of its allowable catch, preference for exploiting the resources is given to developing landlocked countries. Developed landlocked countries entitled to exploit only the resources of developed coastal states.

Economic: Exclusive Economic Zone, UNCLOS Part VI, Articles 76-85

All states are recognized to have a continental shelf extending as far as 200 nautical miles, subject to the limits of the shelves of bordering or opposing states. This may extend up to 350 nautical miles or more from baseline. Determines that coastal states have sovereign rights for exploring and exploiting natural resources over continental shelf within their territory.  Determines that all states have the right to lay submarine cables and pipelines in the continental shelf.

Economic: The Area: Development of Resources of the Area, UNCLOS Part XI, Articles 150-155.

Promotes trade and commerce in the area, or the region beyond 200 nautical miles of a coast, "in accordance with sound commercial principles," with the objective of contributing to a "healthy development of the world economy and balanced growth of international trade." 1996 agreement removed objectionable provisions such as mandatory technology transfers and production limitations.

Environment and Conservation: The Area: Protection and Preservation of the Marine Environment, UNCLOS Part XII, Articles 192-237

Provides a regime for prevention of marine pollution from vessels. Obligates states to protect and preserve the marine environment. Particular emphasis on curbing pollution from land-based sources, atmospheric sources, seabed activities, dumping, shipping, and harmful activities. Encourages international cooperation for policy formulation and standard setting to prevent, reduce, and control pollution.

Environment and Conservation: High Seas: Conservation and Management of Living Resources in the High Seas, UNCLOS Part VII, Articles 116-120

Requests states to cooperate in conserving living resources in the high seas.

Environment and Conservation: High Seas: Exclusive Economic Zone: Conservation of the Living Resources, UNCLOS Part V, Article 61

Requests states to cooperate in conserving living resources in the exclusive economic zone.

Marine Science: Marine Scientific Research, UNCLOS Part XIII, Articles 238-265

Determines that all states and competent international organizations have the right to conduct marine scientific research for peaceful purposes. Encourages international research cooperation and information sharing.



Gulf of Aden

Piracy has reemerged as a vital security threat, particularly in the Gulf of Aden. Due to heightened international efforts, incidences of piracy declined by 28 percent from 2011. Over the past five years, pirates from Somalia have virtually paralyzed commercial and government shipping in the region, prompting international counter-piracy efforts by the United States, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, European Union, and China, among others. In April 2010, President Obama declared pirates an "extraordinary threat" to ocean security, and the United States launched its first piracy trial in more than a century to prosecute five Somali nationals in November 2010. In January 2011, the jury convicted the Somali men of piracy and an appeals court upheld the ruling, bestowing U.S. prosectors with broader legal authority to pursue attackers of U.S. vessels in the future.


Strait of Hormuz

Global commerce has become increasingly dependent on the efficient passage of ships through maritime straits and narrow waterways, commonly referred to as chokepoints. Commodities, such as crude oil, are particularly vulnerable to supply disruptions in these critical areas. Nearly 35 percent of the world's oil supply flows through the Strait of Hormuz, seemingly the world's most vulnerable chokepoint. Located at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, the strait consists of two one-mile-wide channels for inbound and outbound tanker traffic. If the passage were to close, transport of crude oil to Asia, Europe, and the United States would be jeopardized, amplifying the demand for energy and leading to skyrocketing oil prices.

Dying Coral Reefs

Great Barrier Reef

Coral provide a biologically diverse terrain that is home to a variety of marine species, such as mollusks, fish, sponges, and crustaceans. Yet growing stress from climate change and human activity has led to a rapid decline in the health of reefs worldwide. Some believe that reefs will not survive without dedicated and prompt protection against human exploitation. One of the most dramatic declines is occurring in the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest single structure made by living organisms. The reef is visible from outer space and stretches for more than 1,500 miles along the northeast coast of Australia. Alarmingly, in June 2012, UN researchers designated the reef as "under imminent threat". This dismal finding highlights the need to protect coral and the sea life that depends on it.


North Sea (Europe)

The world's fishing fleet is losing more than $36 billion a year due to poor fisheries management and the depletion of fish stocks. Aside from the immense economic costs of depleted fisheries, overfishing can cause irreversible environmental damage, destroying fragile ecosystems, and the extinction of some species and the overpopulation of others.

The North Sea provides an acute example of overfishing. Once home to one of the most diverse fish ecosystems in the world with more than two hundred species of fish, the North Sea faced the collapse of several of its fisheries by the 1960s. Some species have disappeared from the North Sea altogether and several more, including cod, are endangered. The loss of the vital cod fishery could cost more than 15,000 jobs in the United Kingdom alone. Throughout the world, a similar pattern of overfishing is repeating itself, with limited success in restoring depleted fish stocks.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

North Pacific Ocean

The oceans have literally become the world's dumping ground, and nowhere is it more pronounced than in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (also known as the Eastern Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex). Approximately 3.5 million tons of trash is caught in the North Pacific Gyre, creating a floating wasteland of marine debris that is roughly twice the size of Texas. According to some estimates, 80 percent of the garbage comes from land-based sources. The Pacific Garbage Patch is thought to be one of five garbage swirls around the world. Another garbage patch in the Atlantic Ocean is roughly as long as the distance between Cuba and Virginia.

Melting Arctic

Arctic Ocean

Arctic ice is melting at unprecedented rates as a result of climate change. In September 2007, the Arctic shrunk to the smallest area ever recorded—more than one million square miles below the average minimum area. Similar results were found during the summer of 2010. At this pace, the Arctic could be seasonally ice free as early as 2013. As the Arctic ice recedes, the race to claim valuable resources underneath the Arctic waters will escalate, potentially threatening the lives of indigenous groups, marine mammals, and fisheries. The melting ice may also cause security concerns as the two great Arctic powers—Russia and the United States—jockey for rightful territorial claims off their continental shelves. Other powers, such as China and the European Union, also look to secure shorter commercial routes through the northern sea.

Rising Sea Levels

Maldives, Indian Ocean

One of the most dramatic consequences of the melting ice is the rising sea levels around the world. In 2007, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released estimates showing that the sea level would rise between eight and twenty-four inches by 2100. Then, at a March 2009 conference of the Climate Change Congress, scientists said that a rise in sea levels could far exceed projections made by the IPCC. The implications of rising sea levels are severe. Low-lying island states such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, parts of the Bahamas, and the Maldives could be permanently submerged, producing ecological and humanitarian disasters.



John B. Bellinger III, Adjunct Senior Fellow for International and National Securiy Law

Blake Clayton, Adjunct Fellow for Energy

Michael Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change

Stewart M. Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies


The Internationalist: "Everyone Agrees: The U.S. Should Ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty"


CFR Contingency Planning Memorandum: Armed Clash in the South China Sea


CFR Council Special Report: The National Interest and the Law of the Sea


CFR Policy Innovation Memorandum: A Strategy to Advance the Arctic Economy


Economist: "Special Report on the Sea"


Economist: "Piracy: No Stopping Them"


Final Recommendations of the Inter-Agency Ocean Policy Task Force


Foreign Affairs: "Swapping Pirates for Commerce"


Foreign Affairs: "The Arctic Meltdown"


New York Times: "As Glaciers Melt, Science Seeks Data on Rising Seas"


Office of the Director of National Intelligence Report: Global Water Security


Stimson Center: "The Indian Ocean: Resource and Governance Challenges" [PDF]


UN Environmental Program: Blue Carbon: The Role of Healthy Oceans in Binding Carbon


UN Environmental Program: Marine Litter: A Global Challenge



Planet Earth/The Blue Planet

(Multimedia Interactive)

New York Times: The Big Melt


New York Times: Catlin Seaview Survey



Aldaber Vallega, Sustainable Oceans Governance: A Geographic Perspective (Routledge, 2000)

Chua Thia-Eng, Gunnar Kullenberg, and Danilo Bonga, Securing the Oceans: Essays on Ocean Governance (PEMSEA, 2008)

Dick Sherwood and David Wilson, Ocean Governance and Maritime Strategy (Allen & Unwin, 2000)

Lee Kimball, International Ocean Governance: Using International Law and Organizations to Manage Marine Resources Sustainably (IUCN, 2003)

Marcus Howard and Joanna Vince, Ocean Governance in the Twenty-First Century (Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 2008)

Mario Soares, The Ocean: Our Future (Cambridge University Press, 1998)

National Research Council, Striking a Balance: Improving Stewardship of Marine Areas (National Academies Press, 1997)

Tore Henriksen, Geir Honneland, and Are Sydnes, Law and Politics in Oceans Governance (Brill Academic Publishers, 2005)

United Nations Environmental Program:Global International Water Assessment: Challenges to International Waters: Regional Assessments in a Global Perspective (UNEP, 2006)

Zafar Adeel, Nobuyuki Miyazaki, and Kouichi Ohwada, eds., Mankind and the Oceans (United Nations University Press, 2005)


Center for Oceans Law and Policy

Joint Ocean Commission Initiative

National Oceans Council

Pew Oceans Commission